XI. The Loose Link
 

Seated primly on a chair in Miss Evelina's kitchen, Miss Mehitable gave a full account of her sentiments toward Doctor Ralph Dexter. She began with his birth and remarked that he was a puny infant, and, for a time, it was feared that he was "light headed."

"He got his senses after a while, though," she continued, grudgingly, "that is, such as they are."

She proceeded through his school-days, repeated unflattering opinions which his teachers had expressed to her, gave an elaborate description of the conflict that ensued when she caught him stealing green apples from her incipient, though highly promising, orchard, alluded darkly to his tendency to fight with his schoolmates, suggested that certain thefts of chickens ten years and more ago could, if the truth were known, safely be attributed to Ralph Dexter, and speculated upon the trials and tribulations a scapegrace son might cause an upright and respected father.

All the dead and buried crimes of the small boys of the village were excavated from the past and charged to Ralph Dexter. Miss Mehitable brought the record fully up to the time he left Rushton for college, having been prepared for entrance by his father. Then she began with Araminta.

First upon the schedule were Miss Mehitable's painful emotions when Barbara Smith had married Henry Lee. She croaked anew all her raven-like prophecies of misfortune which had added excitement to the wedding, and brought forth the birth of Araminta in full proof. Full details of Barbara's death were given, and the highly magnified events which had led to her adoption of the child. Condescending for a moment to speak of the domestic virtues, Miss Mehitable explained, with proper pride, how she had "brought up" Araminta. The child had been kept close at the side of her guardian angel, never had been to school, had been carefully taught at home, had not been allowed to play with other children; in short, save at extremely rare intervals, Araminta had seen no one unless in the watchful presence of her counsellor.

"And if you don't think that's work," observed Miss Hitty, piously, "you just keep tied to one person for almost nineteen years, day and night, never lettin' 'em out of your sight, and layin' the foundation of their manners and morals and education, and see how you'll feel when a blackmailing sprig of a play-doctor threatens to collect a hundred dollars from you if you dast to nurse your own niece!"

Miss Evelina, silent as always, was moving restlessly about the kitchen. Unaccustomed since her girlhood to activity of any description, she found her new tasks hard. Muscles, long unused, ached miserably from exertion. Yet Araminta had to be taken care of and her room kept clean.

The daily visits of Doctor Ralph, who was almost painfully neat, had made Miss Evelina ashamed of her house, though he had not appeared to notice that anything was wrong. She avoided him when she could, but it was not always possible, for directions had to be given and reports made. Miss Evelina never looked at him directly. One look into his eyes, so like his father's, had made her so faint that she would have fallen, had not Doctor Ralph steadied her with his strong arm.

To her, he was Anthony Dexter in the days of his youth, though she continually wondered to find it so. She remembered a story she had read, a long time ago, of a young woman who lost her husband of a few weeks in a singularly pathetic manner. In exploring a mountain, he fell into a crevasse, and his body could not be recovered. Scientists calculated that, at the rate the glacier was moving, his body might be expected to appear at the foot of the mountain in about twenty-three years; so, grimly, the young bride set herself to wait.

At the appointed time, the glacier gave up its dead, in perfect preservation, owing to the intense cold. But the woman who had waited for her husband thus was twenty-three years older; she had aged, and he was still young. In some such way had Anthony Dexter come back to her; eager, boyish, knowing none of life except its joy, while she, a quarter of a century older, had borne incredible griefs, been wasted by long vigils, and now stood, desolate, at the tomb of a love which was not dead, but continually tore at its winding sheet and prayed for release.

To Evelina, at times, the past twenty-five years seemed like a long nightmare. This was Anthony Dexter--this boy with the quick, light step, the ringing laugh, the broad shoulders and clear, true eyes. No terror lay between them, all was straight and right; yet the realisation still enshrouded her like a black cloud.

"And," said Miss Hitty, mournfully, "after ail my patience and hard work in bringing up Araminta as a lady should be brought up, and having taught her to beware of men and even of boys, she's took away from me when she's sick, and nobody allowed to see her except a blackmailing play-doctor, who is putting Heaven knows what devilment into her head. I suppose there's nothing to prevent me from finishing the housecleaning, if I don't speak to my own niece as I pass her door?"

She spoke inquiringly, but Miss Evelina did not reply.

"Most folks," continued Miss Hitty, with asperity, "is pleased enough to have their houses cleaned for 'em to say 'thank you,' but I'm some accustomed to ingratitude. What I do now in the way of cleanin' will be payin' for the nursin' of Araminta."

Still Miss Evelina did not answer, her thoughts being far away.

"Maybe I did speak cross to Minty," admitted Miss Hitty, grudgingly, "at a time when I had no business to. If I did, I'm willin' to tell her so, but not that blackmailing play-doctor with a hundred-dollar bill for a club. I was clean out of patience with Minty for falling off the ladder, but I guess, as he says, she didn't go for to do it. 'T ain't in reason for folks to step off ladders or out of windows unless they're walkin' in their sleep, and I've never let Minty sleep in the daytime."

Unceasingly, Miss Mehitable prattled on. Reminiscence, anecdote, and philosophical observations succeeded one another with startling rapidity, ending always in vituperation and epithet directed toward Araminta's physician. Dark allusions to the base ingratitude of everybody with whom Miss Hitty had ever been concerned alternately cumbered her speech. At length the persistent sound wore upon Miss Evelina, much as the vibration of sound may distress one totally deaf.

The kitchen door was open and Miss Evelina went outdoors. Miss Mehitable continued to converse, then shortly perceived that she was alone. "Well, I never!" she gasped. "Guess I'll go home!"

Her back was very stiff and straight when she marched downhill, firmly determined to abandon Evelina, scorn Doctor Ralph Dexter, and leave Araminta to her well-deserved fate. One thought and one only illuminated her gloom. "He ain't got his four dollars and a half, yet," she chuckled, craftily. "Mebbe he'll get it and mebbe he won't. We'll see."

While straying about the garden. Miss Evelina saw her unwelcome guest take her militant departure, and reproached herself for her lack of hospitality. Miss Mehitable had been very kind to her and deserved only kindness in return. She had acted upon impulse and was ashamed.

Miss Evelina meditated calling her back, but the long years of self-effacement and inactivity had left her inert, with capacity only for suffering. That very suffering to which she had become accustomed had of late assumed fresh phases. She was hurt continually in new ways, yet, after the first shock of returning to her old home, not so much as she had expected. It is a way of life, and one of its inmost compensations--this finding of a reality so much easier than our fears.

April had come over the hills, singing, with a tinkle of rain and a rush of warm winds, and yet the Piper had not returned. His tools were in the shed, and the mountain of rubbish was still in the road in front of the house. Half of the garden had not been touched. On one side of the house was the bare brown earth, with tiny green shoots springing up through it, and on the other was a twenty-five years' growth of weeds. Miss Evelina reflected that the place was not unlike her own life; half of it full of promise, a forbidding wreck in the midst of it, and, beyond it, desolation, ended only by a stone wall.

"Did you think," asked a cheerful voice at her elbow, "that I was never coming back to finish my job?"

Miss Evelina started, and gazed into the round, smiling face of Piper Tom, who was accompanied, as always, by his faithful dog.

"'T is not our way," he went on, including the yellow mongrel in the pronoun, "to leave undone what we've set our hands and paws to do, eh, Laddie?"

He waited a moment, but Miss Evelina did not speak.

"I got some seeds for my garden," he continued, taking bulging parcels from the pockets of his short, shaggy coat. "The year's sorrow is at an end."

"Sorrow never comes to an end," she cried, bitterly.

"Doesn't it," he asked. "How old is yours?"

"Twenty-five years," she answered, choking. The horror of it was pressing heavily upon her.

"Then," said the Piper, very gently, "I'm thinking there is something wrong. No sorrow should last more than a year--'t is written all around us so."

"Written? I have never seen it written."

"No," returned the Piper, kindly, "but 't is because you have not looked to see. Have you ever known a tree that failed to put out its green leaves in the Spring, unless it had died from lightning or old age? When a rose blossoms, then goes to sleep, does it wait for more than a year before it blooms again? Is it more than a year from bud to bud, from flower to flower, from fruit to fruit? 'T is God's way of showing that a year of darkness is enough,--at a time."

The Piper's voice was very tender; the little dog lay still at his feet. She leaned against the crumbling wall, and turned her veiled face away.

"'T is not for us to be happy without trying," continued the Piper, "any more than it is for a tree to bear fruit without effort. All the beauty and joy in the world are the result of work--work for each other and in ourselves. When you see a butterfly over a field of clover, 't is because he has worked to get out of his chrysalis. He was not content to abide within his veil."

"Suppose," said Miss Evelina, in a voice that was scarcely audible, "that he couldn't get out?"

"Ah, but he could," answered the Piper. "We can get out of anything, if we try. I'm not meaning by escape, but by growth. You put an acorn into a crevice in a rock. It has no wings, it cannot fly out, nobody will lift it out. But it grows, and the oak splits the rock; even takes from the rock nourishment for its root."

"People are not like acorns and butterflies," she stammered. "We are not subject to the same laws."

"Why not?" asked the Piper. "God made us all, and I'm thinking we're all brothers, having, in a way, the same Father. 'T is not for me to hold myself above Laddie here, though he's a dog and I'm a man. 'T is not for me to say that men are better than dogs; that they're more honest, more true, more kind. The seed that I have in my hand, here, I'm thinking 't is my brother, too. If I plant it, water it, and keep the weeds away from it, 't will give me back a blossom. 'T is service binds us all into the brotherhood."

"Did you never," asked Evelina, thickly, "hear of chains?"

"Aye," said the Piper, "chains of our own making. 'T is like the ancient people in one of my ragged books. When one man killed another, they chained the dead man to the living one, so that he was forever dragging his own sin. When he struck the blow, he made his own chain."

"I am chained," cried Evelina, piteously, "but not to my own sin."

"'T is wrong," said the Piper; "I'm thinking there's a loose link somewhere that can be slipped off."

"I cannot find it," she sobbed; "I've hunted for it in the dark for twenty-five years."

"Poor soul," said the Piper, softly. "'T is because of the darkness, I'm thinking. From the distaff of Eternity, you take the thread of your life, but you're sitting in the night, and God meant you to be a spinner in the sun. When the day breaks for you, you'll be finding the loose link to set yourself free."

"When the day breaks," repeated Evelina, in a whisper. "There is no day."

"There is day. I've come to lead you to it. We'll find the light together and set the thread to going right again."

"Who are you?" cried Evelina, suddenly terror stricken.

The Piper laughed, a low, deep friendly laugh. Then he doffed his grey hat and bowed, sweeping the earth with the red feather, in cavalier fashion. "Tom Barnaby, at your service, but most folks call me Piper Tom. 'T is the flute, you know," he continued in explanation, "that I'm forever playing on in the woods, having no knowledge of the instrument, but sort of liking the sound."

Miss Evelina turned and went into the house, shaken to her inmost soul. More than ever, she felt the chains that bound her. Straining against her bonds, she felt them cutting deep into her flesh. Anthony Dexter had bound her; he alone could set her free. From this there seemed no possible appeal.

Meanwhile the Piper mowed down the weeds in the garden, whistling cheerily. He burned the rubbish in the road, and the smoke made a blue haze on the hill. He spaded and raked and found new stones for the broken wall, and kept up a constant conversation with the dog.

It was twilight long before he got ready to make the flower beds, so he carried the tools back into the shed and safely stored away the seeds. Miss Evelina watched him from the grimy front window as he started downhill, but he did not once look back.

There was something jaunty in the Piper's manner, aside from the drooping red feather which bobbed rakishly as he went home, whistling. When he was no longer to be seen, Miss Evelina sighed. Something seemed to have gone out of her life, like a sunbeam which has suddenly faded. In a safe shadow of the house, she raised her veil, and wiped away a tear.

When out of sight and hearing, the Piper stopped his whistling. "'T is no need to be cheerful, Laddie," he explained to the dog, "when there's none to be saddened if you're not. We don't know about the loose link, and perhaps we can never find it, but we're going to try. We'll take off the chain and put the poor soul in the sun again before we go away, if we can learn how to do it, but I'm thinking 't is a heavy chain and the sun has long since ceased to shine."

After supper, he lighted a candle and absorbed himself in going over his stock. He had made a few purchases in the city and it took some time to arrange them properly.

Last of all, he took out a box and opened it. He held up to the flickering light length after length of misty white chiffon--a fabric which the Piper had never bought before.

"'T is expensive, Laddie," he said; "so expensive that neither of us will taste meat again for more than a week, though we walked both ways, but I'm thinking she'll need more sometime and there was none to be had here. We'll not be in the way of charging for it since her gown is shabby and her shoes are worn."

Twilight deepened into night and still the Piper sat there, handling the chiffon curiously and yet with reverence. It was silky to his touch, filmy, cloud-like. He folded it into small compass, and crushed it in his hands, much surprised to find that it did not crumple. All the meaning of chiffon communicated itself to him--the lightness and the laughter, the beauty and the love. Roses and moonlight seemed to belong with it, youth and a singing heart.

"'T is a rare stuff, I'm thinking, Laddie," he said, at length, not noting that the dog was asleep. "'T is a rare, fine stuff, and well suited to her wearing, because she is so beautiful that she hides her face."