XIV. A Little Hour of Triumph
 

Miss Evelina sat alone in her parlour, which was now spotlessly clean. Araminta had had her supper, her bath, and her clean linen--there was nothing more to do until morning. The hard work had proved a blessing to Miss Evelina; her thoughts had been constantly forced away from herself. She had even learned to love Araminta with the protecting love which grows out of dependence, and, at the same time, she felt herself stronger; better fitted, as it were, to cope with her own grief.

Since coming back to her old home, her thought and feeling had been endlessly and painfully confused. She sat in her low rocker with her veil thrown back, and endeavoured to analyse herself and her surroundings, to see, if she might, whither she was being led. She was most assuredly being led, for she had not come willingly, nor remained willingly; she had been hurt here as she had not been hurt since the very first, and yet, if a dead heart can be glad of anything, she was glad she had come. Upon the far horizon of her future, she dimly saw change.

She had that particular sort of peace which comes from the knowledge that the worst is over; that nothing remains. The last drop of humiliation had been poured from her cup the day she met Anthony Dexter on the road and had been splashed with mud from his wheels as he drove by. It was inconceivable that there should be more.

Dusk came and the west gleamed faintly. The afterglow merged into the first night and at star-break, Venus blazed superbly on high, sending out rays mystically prismatic, as from some enchanted lamp. "Our star," Anthony Dexter had been wont to call it, as they watched for it in the scented dusk. For him, perhaps, it had been indeed the love-star, but she had followed it, with breaking heart, into the quicksands.

To shut out the sight of it, Miss Evelina closed the blinds and lighted a candle, then sat down again, to think.

There was a dull, uncertain rap at the door. Doctor Ralph, possibly--he had sometimes come in the evening,--or else Miss Hitty, with some delicacy for Araminta's breakfast.

Drawing down her veil, she went to the door and opened it, thinking, as she did so, that lives were often wrecked or altered by the opening or closing of a door.

Anthony Dexter brushed past her and strode into the parlour. Through her veil, she would scarcely have recognised him--he was so changed. Upon the instant, there was a transformation in herself. The suffering, broken-hearted woman was strangely pushed aside--she could come again, but she must step aside now. In her place arose a veiled vengeance, emotionless, keen, watchful; furtively searching for the place to strike.

"Evelina," began the man, without preliminary, "I have come back. I have come to tell you that I am a coward--a shirk."

Miss Evelina laughed quietly in a way that stung him. "Yes?" she said, politely. "I knew that. You need not have troubled to come and tell me."

He winced. "Don't," he muttered. "If you knew how I have suffered!"

"I have suffered myself," she returned, coldly, wondering at her own composure. She marvelled that she could speak at all.

"Twenty-five years ago," he continued in a parrot-like tone, "I asked you to marry me, and you consented. I have never been released from my promise--I did not even ask to be. I slunk away like a cur. The honour of the spoken word still holds me. The tardy fulfilment of my promise is the only atonement I can make."

The candle-light shone on his iron-grey hair, thinning at the temples; touched into bold relief every line of his face.

"Twenty-five years ago," said Evelina, in a voice curiously low and distinct, "you asked me to marry you, and I consented. You have never been released from your promise--you did not even ask to be." The silence was vibrant; literally tense with emotion. Out of it leaped, with passionate pride: "I release you now!"

"No!" he cried. "I have come to fulfil my promise--to atone, if atonement can be made!"

"Do you call your belated charity atonement? Twenty-five years ago, I saved you from death--or worse. One of us had to be burned, and it was I, instead of you. I chose it, not deliberately, but instinctively, because I loved you. When you came to the hospital, after three days----"

"I was ill," he interrupted. "The gas----"

"You were told," she went on, her voice dominating his, "that I had been so badly burned that I would be disfigured for life. That was enough for you. You never asked to see me, never tried in any way to help me, never sent by a messenger a word of thanks for your cowardly life, never even waited to be sure it was not a mistake. You simply went away."

"There was no mistake," he muttered, helplessly. "I made sure."

He turned his eyes away from her miserably. Through his mind came detached fragments of speech. The honour of the spoken word still holds him . . . Father always does the square thing . . .

"I am asking you," said Anthony Dexter, "to be my wife. I am offering you the fulfilment of the promise I made so long ago. I am asking you to marry me, to live with me, to be a mother to my son."

"Yes," repeated Evelina, "you ask me to marry you. Would you have a scarred and disfigured wife? A man usually chooses a beautiful woman, or one he thinks beautiful, to sit at the head of his table, manage his house, take the place of a servant when it is necessary, accept gladly what money he chooses to give her, and bear and rear his children. Poor thing that I am, you offer me this. In return, I offer you release. I gave you your life once, I give you freedom now. Take your last look at the woman who would not marry you to save you from--hell!"

The man started forward, his face ashen, for she had raised her veil, and was standing full in the light.

In the tense silence he gazed at her, fascinated. Every emotion that possessed him was written plainly on his face for her to read. "The night of realisation," she was saying, "turned my hair white. Since I left the hospital, no human being has seen my face till now. I think you understand--why?"

Anthony Dexter breathed hard; his body trembled. He was suffering as the helpless animals had suffered on the table in his laboratory. Evelina was merciless, but at last, when he thought she had no pity, she lowered her veil.

The length of chiffon fell between them eternally; it was like the closing of a door. "I understand," he breathed, "oh, I understand. It is my punishment--you have scored at last. Good----"

A sob drowned the last word. He took her cold hand in his, and, bending over it, touched it with his quivering lips.

"Yes," laughed Evelina, "kiss my hand, if you choose. Why not? My hand was not burned!"

His face working piteously, he floundered out into the night and staggered through the gate as he had come--alone.

The night wind came through the open door, dank and cold. She closed it, then bolted it as though to shut out Anthony Dexter for ever.

It was his punishment, he had said. She had scored at last. If he had suffered, as he told her he had, the sight of her face would be torture. Yes, Evelina knew that she had scored. From her hand she wiped away tears--a man's hot, terrible tears.

Through the night she sat there, wide-eyed and sleepless, fearlessly unveiled. The chiffon trailed its misty length unheeded upon the floor. The man she had loved was as surely dead to her as though he had never been.

Anthony Dexter was dead. True, his body and mind still lived, but he was not the man she had loved. The face that had looked into hers was not the face of Anthony Dexter. It had been cold and calm and cruel, until he came to her house. His eyes were fish-like, and, stirred by emotion, he was little less than hideous.

Her suffering had been an obsession--there had been no reason for it, not the shadow of an excuse. A year, as the Piper said, would have been long enough for her to grieve. She saw her long sorrow now as something outside of herself, a beast whose prey she had been. When Anthony Dexter had proved himself a coward, she should have thanked God that she knew him before it was too late. And because she was weak in body, because her hurt heart still clung to her love for him, she had groped in the darkness for more than half of her life.

And now he had come back! The blood of triumph surged hard. She loved him no longer; then, why was she not free? Her chains yet lay heavily upon her; in the midst of victory, she was still bound.

The night waned. She was exhausted by stress of feeling and the long vigil, but the iron, icy hand that had clasped her .heart so long did not for a moment relax its hold. She went to the window and looked out. Stars were paling, the mysterious East had trembled; soon it would be day.

She watched the dawn as though it were for the first time and she was privileged to stand upon some lofty peak when "God said: 'Let there be light,' and there was light." The tapestry of morning flamed splendidly across the night, reflecting its colour back upon her unveiled face.

From far away, in the distant hills, whose summits only as yet were touched with dawn, came faint, sweet music--the pipes o' Pan. She guessed that the Piper was abroad with Laddie, in some fantastic spirit of sun-worship, and smiled.

Her little hour of triumph was over; her soul was once more back in its prison. The prison house was larger, and different, but it was still a prison. For an instant, freedom had flashed before her and dazed her; now it was dark again.

"Why?" breathed Evelina. "Dear God, why?"

As if in answer, the music came back from the hills in uncertain silvery echoes. "Oh, pipes o' Pan," cried Evelina, choking back a sob, "I pray you, find me! I pray you, teach me joy!"