XIII. The River Comes into its Own
 

"Father," asked Ralph, "who is Evelina Grey?"

Anthony Dexter started from his chair as though he had heard a pistol shot, then settled back, forcing his features into mask-like calmness. He waited a moment before speaking.

"I don't know," he answered, trying to make his voice even, "Why?"

"She lives in the house with my one patient," explained Ralph; "up on the hill, you know. She's a frail, ghostly little woman in black, and she always wears a thick white veil."

"That's her privilege, isn't it?" queried Anthony Dexter. He had gained control of himself, now, and spoke almost as usual.

"Of course I didn't ask any questions," continued Ralph, thoughtfully, "but, obviously, the only reason for her wearing it is some terrible disfigurement. So much is surgically possible in these days that I thought something might be done for her. Has she never consulted you about it, Father?"

The man laughed--a hollow, mirthless laugh. "No," he said; "she hasn't." Then he laughed once more--in a way that jarred upon his son.

Ralph paced back and forth across the room, his hands in his pockets. "Father," he began, at length, "it may be because I'm young, but I hold before me, very strongly, the ideals of our profession. It seems a very beautiful and wonderful life that is opening before me--always to help, to give, to heal. I--I feel as though I had been dedicated to some sacred calling--some lifelong service. And service means brotherhood."

"You'll get over that," returned Anthony Dexter, shortly, yet not without a certain secret admiration. "When you've had to engage a lawyer to collect your modest wages for your uplifting work, the healed not being sufficiently grateful to pay the healer, and when you've gone ten miles in the dead of Winter, at midnight, to take a pin out of a squalling infant's back, why, you may change your mind."

"If the healed aren't grateful," observed Ralph, thoughtfully, "it must be in some way my fault, or else they haven't fully understood. And I'd go ten miles to take a pin out of a baby's back--yes, I'm sure I would."

Anthony Dexter's face softened, almost imperceptibly. "It's youth," he said, "and youth is a fault we all get over soon enough, Heaven knows. When you're forty, you'll see that the whole thing is a matter of business and that, in the last analysis, we're working against Nature's laws. We endeavour to prolong the lives of the unfit, when only the fittest should survive."

"That makes me think of something else," continued Ralph, in a low tone. "Yesterday, I canvassed the township to get a cat for Araminta--the poor child never had a kitten. Nobody would let me have one till I got far away from home, and, even then, it was difficult. They thought I wanted it for--for the laboratory," he concluded, almost in a whisper.

"Yes?" returned Doctor Dexter, with a rising inflection. "I could have told you that the cat and dog supply was somewhat depleted hereabouts--through my own experiments."

"Father!" cried Ralph, his face eloquent with reproach.

Laughing, yet secretly ashamed, Anthony Dexter began to speak. "Surely, Ralph," he said, "you're not so womanish as that. If I'd known they taught such stuff as that at my old Alma Mater, I'd have sent you somewhere else. Who's doing it? What old maid have they added to their faculty?"

"Oh, I know, Father," interrupted Ralph, waiving discussion. "I've heard all the arguments, but, unfortunately, I have a heart. I don't know by what right we assume that human life is more precious than animal life; by what right we torture and murder the fit in order to prolong the lives of the unfit, even if direct evidence were obtainable in every case, which it isn't. Anyhow, I can't do it, I never have done it, and I never will. I recognise your individual right to shape your life in accordance with the dictates of your own conscience, but, because I'm your son, I can't help being ashamed. A man capable of torturing an animal, no matter for what purpose, is also capable of torturing a fellow human being, for purposes of his own."

Anthony Dexter's face suddenly blanched with anger, then grew livid. "You--" he began, hotly.

"Don't, Father," interrupted Ralph. "We'll not have any words. We'll not let a difference of opinion on any subject keep us from being friends. Perhaps it's because I'm young, as you say, but, all the time I was at college, I felt that I had something to lean on, some standard to shape myself to. Mother died so soon after I was born that it is almost as if I had not had a mother. I haven't even a childish memory of her, and, perhaps for that reason, you meant more to me than the other fellows' fathers did to them.

"When I was tempted to any wrongdoing, the thought of you always held me back. 'Father wouldn't do it,' I said to myself. 'Father always does the square thing, and I'm his son.' I remembered that our name means 'right.' So I never did it."

"And I suppose, now," commented Anthony Dexter, with assumed sarcasm, "your idol has fallen?"

"Not fallen, Father. Don't say that. You have the same right to your opinions that I have, but it isn't square to cut up an animal alive, just because you're the stronger and there's no law to prevent you. You know it isn't square!"

In the accusing silence, Ralph left the room, and was shortly on his way uphill, with Araminta's promised cat mewing in his coat pocket.

The grim, sardonic humour of the situation appealed strongly to Doctor Dexter. "To think," he said to himself, "that only last night, that identical cat was observed as a fresh and promising specimen, providentially sent to me in the hour of need. And if I hadn't wanted Ralph to help me, Araminta's pet would at this moment have been on the laboratory table, having its heart studied--in action."

Repeatedly, he strove to find justification for a pursuit which his human instinct told him had no justification. His reason was fully adequate, but something else failed at the crucial point. He felt definitely uncomfortable and wished that Ralph might have avoided the subject. It was none of his business, anyway. But then, Ralph himself had admitted that.

His experiments were nearly completed along the line in which he had been working. In deference to a local sentiment which he felt to be extremely narrow and dwarfing, he had done his work secretly. He had kept the door of the laboratory locked and the key in his pocket. All the doors and windows had been closely barred. When his subjects had given out under the heavy physical strain, he had buried the pitiful little bodies himself.

He had counted, rather too surely, on the deafness of his old housekeeper, and had also heavily discounted her personal interest in his pursuits and her tendency to gossip. Yet, through this single channel had been disseminated information and conjecture which made it difficult for Ralph to buy a pet for Araminta.

Anthony Dexter shuddered at his narrow escape. Suppose Araminta's cat had been sacrificed, and he had been obliged to tell Ralph? One more experiment was absolutely necessary. He was nearly satisfied, but not quite. It would be awkward to have Ralph make any unpleasant discoveries, and he could not very well keep him out of the laboratory, now, without arousing his suspicion. Very possibly, a man who would torture an animal would also torture a human being, but he was unwilling to hurt Ralph. Consequently, there was a flaw in the logic--the boy's reasoning was faulty, unless this might be the exception which proved the rule.

Who was Evelina Grey? He wondered how Ralph had come to ask the question. Suppose he had told him that Evelina Grey was the name of a woman who haunted him, night and day! In her black gown and with her burned face heavily veiled, she was seldom out of his mental sight.

All through the past twenty-five years, he had continually told himself that he had forgotten. When the accusing thought presented itself, he had invariably pushed it aside, and compelled it to give way to another. In this way, he had acquired an emotional control for which he, personally, had great admiration, not observing that his admiration of himself was an emotion, and, at that, less creditable than some others might have been.

Man walls up a river, and commands it to do his bidding. Outwardly, the river assents to the arrangement, yielding to it with a readiness which, in itself, is suspicious, but man, rapt in contemplation of his own skill, sees little else. By night and by day the river leans heavily against the dam. Tiny, sharp currents, like fingers, tear constantly at the structure, working always underneath. Hidden and undreamed-of eddies burrow beneath the dam; little river animals undermine it, ever so slightly, with tooth and claw.

At last an imperceptible opening is made. Streams rush down from the mountain to join the river; even raindrops lend their individually insignificant aid. All the forces of nature are subtly arrayed against the obstruction in the river channel. Suddenly, with the thunder of pent-up waters at last unleashed, the dam breaks, and the structures placed in the path by complacent and self-satisfied man are swept on to the sea like so much kindling-wood. The river, at last, has come into its own,

A feeling, long controlled, must eventually break its bonds. Forbidden expression, and not spent by expression, it accumulates force. When the dam breaks, the flood is more destructive than the steady, normal current ever could have been. Having denied himself remorse, and having refused to meet the fact of his own cowardice, Anthony Dexter was now face to face with the inevitable catastrophe.

He told himself that Ralph's coming had begun it, but, in his heart, he knew that it was that veiled and ghostly figure standing at twilight in the wrecked garden. He had seen it again on the road, where hallucination was less likely, if not altogether impossible. Then the cold and sinuous necklace of discoloured pearls had been laid at his door--the pearls which had come first from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of his love. His love had given up its dead as the sea does, maimed past all recognition.

The barrier had been so undermined that on the night of Ralph's return he had been on the point of telling Thorpe everything--indeed, nothing but Ralph's swift entrance had stopped his impassioned speech. Was he so weak that only a slight accident had kept him from utter self-betrayal, after twenty-five years of magnificent control? Anthony Dexter liked that word "magnificent" as it came into his thoughts in connection with himself.

"Father wouldn't do it. Father always does the square thing, and I'm his son." Ralph's words returned with a pang unbearably keen. Had Father always done the square thing, or had Father been a coward, a despicable shirk? And what if Ralph should some day come to know?

The man shuddered at the thought of the boy's face--if he knew. Those clear, honest eyes would pierce him through and through, because "Father always does the square thing."

Remorsely, the need of confession surged upon him. There was no confessional in his church--he even had no church. Yet Thorpe was his friend. What would Thorpe tell him to do?

Then Anthony Dexter laughed, for Thorpe had unconsciously told him what to do--and he was spared the confession. As though written in letters of fire, the words came back:

The honour of the spoken word still holds him. He asked her to marry him, and she consented. He was never released from his promise--did not even ask for it. He slunk away like a cur. In the sight of God he is hound to her by his own word still. He should go to her and either fulfil his promise, or ask for release. The tardy fulfilment of his promise would be the only atonement he could make.

Had Evelina come back to demand atonement? Was this why the vision of her confronted him everywhere? She waited for him on the road in daylight, mocked him from the shadows, darted to meet him from every tree. She followed him on the long and lonely ways he took to escape her, and, as he walked, her step chimed in with his.

In darkness, Anthony Dexter feared to turn suddenly, lest he see that black, veiled figure at his heels. She stood aside on the stairs to let him pass her, entered the carriage with him and sat opposite, her veiled face averted. She stood with him beside the sick-bed, listened, with him, to the heart-beats when he used the stethoscope, waited while he counted the pulse and measured the respiration.

Always disapprovingly, she stood in the background of his consciousness. When he wrote a prescription, his pencil seemed to catch on the white chiffon which veiled the paper he was using. At night, she stood beside his bed, waiting. In his sleep, most often secured in these days by drugs, she steadfastly and unfailingly came. She spoke no word; she simply followed him, veiled--and the phantom presence was driving him mad. He admitted it now.

And "Father always does the square thing." Very well, what was the square thing? If Father always does it, he will do it now. What is it?

Anthony Dexter did not know that he asked the question aloud. From the silence vibrated the answer in Thorpe's low, resonant tones:

The honour of the spoken word still holds him . . . he was never released . . . he slunk away like a cur . . . in the sight of God he is bound to her by his own word still.

Bound to her! In every fibre of his being he felt the bitter truth. He was bound to her--had been bound for twenty-five years--was bound now. And "Father always does the square thing."

Once in a man's life, perhaps, he sees himself as he is. In a blinding flash of insight, he saw what he must do. Confession must be made, but not to any pallid priest in a confessional, not to Thorpe, nor to Ralph, but to Evelina, herself.

He should go to her and either fulfil his promise, or ask for release. The tardy fulfilment of his promise would be the only atonement he could make.

Then again, still in Thorpe's voice:

If the woman is here and you can find your friend, we may help him to wash the stain of cowardice off his soul.

"The stain is deep," muttered Anthony Dexter. "God knows it is deep."

Once again came Thorpe's voice, shrilling at him, now, out of the vibrant silence:

Sometimes I think there is no sin but shirking. I can excuse a liar, I can pardon a thief, I can pity a murderer, but a shirk--no!

"Father always does the square thing."

Evidently, Ralph would like to have his father bring him a stepmother--a woman whose face had been destroyed by fire--and place her at the head of his table, veiled or not, as Ralph chose. Terribly burned, hopelessly disfigured, she must live with them always--because she had saved him from the same thing, if she had not actually saved his life.

The walls of the room swayed, the furniture moved dizzily, the floor undulated. Anthony Dexter reeled and fell--in a dead faint.

"Are you all right now, Father?" It was Ralph's voice, anxious, yet cheery. "Who'd have thought I'd get another patient so soon!"

Doctor Dexter sat up and rubbed his eyes. Memory returned slowly; strength more slowly still.

"Can't have my Father fainting all over the place without a permit," resumed Ralph. "You've been doing too much. I take the night work from this time on."

The day wore into late afternoon. Doctor Dexter lay on the couch in the library, the phantom Evelina persistently at his side. His body had failed, but his mind still fought, feebly.

"There is no one here," he said aloud. "I am all alone. I can see nothing because there is nothing here."

Was it fancy, or did the veiled woman convey the impression that her burned lips distorted themselves yet further by a smile?

At dusk, there was a call. Ralph received from his father a full history of the case, with suggestions for treatment in either of two changes that might possibly have taken place, and drove away.

The loneliness was keen. The empty house, shorne of Ralph's sunny presence, was unbearable. A thousand memories surged to meet him; a thousand voices leaped from the stillness. Always, the veiled figure stood by him, mutely accusing him of shameful cowardice. Above and beyond all was Thorpe's voice, shrilling at him:

The honour of the spoken word still holds him . . . he was never released . . . he slunk away like a cur . . . he is bound to her still . . . there is no sin but shirking . . .

Over and over again, the words rang through his consciousness. Then, like an afterclap of thunder:

Father always does the square thing!

The dam crashed, the barrier of years was broken, the obstructions were swept out to sea. Remorse and shame, no longer denied, overwhelmingly submerged his soul. He struggled up from the couch blindly, and went out--broken in body, crushed in spirit, yet triumphantly a man at last.