XX. The Secret of the Veil
 

"Father," said Ralph, pacing back and forth, as was his habit, "I have wanted for some time to ask you about Miss Evelina--the woman, you know, in the little house on the hill. She always wears a veil and there can be no reason for it except some terrible disfigurement. Has she never consulted you?"

"Never," answered Anthony Dexter, with dry lips.

"I remember, you told me, but it seems strange. I spoke to her about it the other day. I told her I was sure that something could be done. I offered to find the best available specialist for her, go with her, and stand by her until it was over."

Anthony Dexter laughed--a harsh, unnatural laugh that jarred upon his son.

"I fail to see anything particularly funny about it," remarked Ralph, coldly.

"What did she say?" asked his father, not daring to meet Ralph's eyes.

"She thanked me, and said nothing could be done."

"She didn't show you her face, I take it."

"No."

"I should have thought she would, under the circumstances--under all the circumstances."

"Have you seen her face?" asked Ralph, quickly, "by chance, or in any other way?"

"Yes."

"How is it? Is it so bad that nothing can be done?"

"She was perfectly right," returned Anthony Dexter, slowly. "There is nothing to be done."

At the moment, the phantom Evelina was pacing back and forth between the man and his son. Her veiled face was proudly turned away. "I wonder," thought Anthony Dexter, curiously, "if she hears. If she did, though, she'd speak, or throw back her veil, so she doesn't hear."

"I may be wrong," sighed Ralph, "but I've always believed that nothing is so bad it can't be made better."

"The unfailing ear-mark of Youth, my son," returned Anthony Dexter, patronisingly. "You'll get over that."

He laughed again, gratingly, and went out, followed by his persistent apparition. "We'll go out for a walk, Evelina," he muttered, when he was half-way to the gate. "We'll see how far you can go without getting tired." The fantastic notion of wearying his veiled pursuer appealed to him strongly.

Ralph watched his father uneasily. Even though he had been relieved of the greater part of his work, Anthony Dexter did not seem to be improving. He was morose, unreasonable, and given to staring vacantly into space for hours at a time. Ralph often spoke to him when he did not hear at all, and at times he turned his head from left to right and back again, slowly, but with the maddening regularity of clock-work. He ate little, but claimed to sleep well.

Whatever it was seemed to be of the mind rather than the body, and Ralph could find nothing in his father's circumstances calculated to worry any one in the slightest degree. He planned, vaguely, to invite a friend who was skilled in the diagnosis of obscure mental disorders to spend a week-end with him, a little later on, and to ask him to observe his father closely. He did not doubt but that Anthony Dexter would see quickly through so flimsy a pretence, but, unless he improved, something of the kind would have to be done soon.

Meanwhile, his heart yearned strangely toward Miss Evelina. It was altogether possible that something, might be done. Ralph was modest, but new discoveries were constantly being made, and he knew that his own knowledge was more abreast of the times than his father's could be. At any rate, he was not so easily satisfied.

He was trying faithfully to forget Araminta, but was not succeeding. The sweet, childish face haunted him as constantly as the veiled phantom haunted his father, but in a different way. Through his own unhappiness, he came into kinship with all the misery of the world. He longed to uplift, to help, to heal.

He decided to try once more to talk with Miss Evelina, to ask her, point blank, if need be, to let him see her face. He knew that his father lacked sympathy, and he was sure that when Miss Evelina once thoroughly understood him, she would be willing to let him help her.

On the way uphill, he considered how he should approach the subject. He had already planned to make an ostensible errand of the book he had loaned Araminta. Perhaps Miss Evelina had read it, or would like to, and he could begin, in that way, to talk to her.

When he reached the gate, the house seemed deserted, though the front door was ajar. It was a warm, sweet afternoon in early Summer, and the world was very still, except for the winged folk of wood and field.

He tapped gently at the door, but there was no answer. He went around to the back door, but it was closed, and there was no sign that the place was occupied, except quantities of white chiffon hung upon the line. Being a man, Ralph did not perceive that Miss Evelina had washed every veil she possessed.

He went back to the front of the house again and found that the door was still ajar. She might have gone away, though it seemed unlikely, or it was not impossible that she might have been taken suddenly ill and was unable to come to the door.

Ralph went in, softly, as he had often done before. Miss Evelina had frequently left the door open for him at the hour he was expected to visit his patient.

He paused a moment in the hall, but heard no sound save slow, deep breathing. He turned into the parlour, but stopped on the threshold as if he had been suddenly changed to stone.

Upon the couch lay Miss Evelina, asleep, and unveiled. Her face was turned toward him--a face of such surpassing beauty that he gasped in astonishment. He had never seen such wondrous perfection of line and feature, nor such a crown of splendour as her lustreless white hair, falling loosely about her shoulders. Her face was as pure and as cold as marble, flawless, and singularly transparent. Her lips were deep scarlet and perfectly shaped; the white slender column of her throat held her head proudly. Long, dark lashes swept her cheek, and the years had left no lines. Feeling the intense scrutiny, Miss Evelina opened her eyes, slowly, like one still half asleep.

Her eyes were violet, so deep in colour as to seem almost black. She stared at Ralph, unseeing, then the light of recognition flashed over her face and she sat up, reaching back quickly for her missing veil.

"Miss Evelina!" cried Ralph. "Why, oh why!"

"Why did you come in?" she demanded, resentfully. "You had no right!"

"Forgive me," he pleaded, coming to her. "I've often come in when the door was open. Why, you've left it open for me yourself, don't you know you have?"

"Perhaps," she answered, a faint colour coming into her cheek. "I had no idea of going to sleep. I am sorry."

"I thought you might be ill," said Ralph. excusing himself further. "Believe me, Miss Evelina, I had no thought of intruding. I only came to help you."

He stood before her, still staring, and her eyes met his clearly in return. In the violet depths was a world of knowledge and pain Suffering had transfigured her face into a noble beauty for which there were no words. Such a face might be the dream of a sculptor, the despair of a painter, and the ecstasy of a lover.

"Why?", cried Ralph, again.

"Because," she answered, simply, "my beauty was my curse."

Ralph did not see that the words were melodramatic; he only sat down, weakly, in a chair opposite her. He never once took his eyes away from her, but stared at her helplessly, like a man in a dream.

"Why?" he questioned, again. "Tell me why!"

"It was in a laboratory," explained Miss Evelina. "I was there with the man I loved and to whom I was to be married the next day. No one knew of our engagement, for, in a small town, you know, people will talk, and we both felt that it was too sacred to be spoken of lightly.

"He was trying an experiment, and I was watching. He came to the retort to put in another chemical, and leaned over it. I heard the mass seething and pushed him away with all my strength. Instantly, there was a terrible explosion. When I came to my senses again, I was in the hospital, wrapped in bandages. I had been terribly burned--see?"

She loosened her black gown at the throat and pushed it down over her right shoulder. Ralph shuddered at the deep, flaming scars.

"My arm is worse," she said, quickly covering her shoulder again. "I need not show you that. My face was burned, too, but scarcely at all. To this day, I do not know how I escaped. I must have thrown up my arm instinctively to shield my face. See, there are no scars."

"I see," murmured Ralph; "and what of him?"

The dark eyes gleamed indescribably. "What of him?" she asked, with assumed lightness. "Why, he was not hurt at all. I saved him from disfigurement, if not from death. I bear the scars; he goes free."

"I know," said Ralph, "but why were you not married? All his life and love would be little enough to give in return for that."

Miss Evelina fixed her deep eyes upon Anthony Dexter's son. In her voice there was no hint of faltering.

"I never saw him again," she said, "until twenty-five years afterward, and then I was veiled. He went away."

"Went away!" repeated Ralph, incredulously. "Miss Evelina, what do you mean?"

"What I said," she replied. "He went away. He came once to the hospital. As it happened, there was another girl there, named Evelyn Grey, burned by acid, and infinitely worse than I. The two names became confused. He was told that I would be disfigured for life--that every feature was destroyed except my sight. That was enough for him. He asked no more questions, but simply went away."

"Coward!" cried Ralph, his face white. "Cur!"

Miss Evelina's eyes gleamed with subtle triumph. "What would you?" she asked unemotionally. "He told me that day of the accident that it was my soul he loved, and not my body, but at the test, he failed. Men usually fail women, do they not, in anything that puts their love to the test? He went away. In a year, he was married, and he has a son."

"A son!" repeated Ralph. "What a heritage of disgrace for a son! Does the boy know?"

There was a significant silence. "I do not think his father has told him," said Evelina, with forced calmness.

"If he had," muttered Ralph, his hands clenched and his teeth set, "his son must have struck him dead where he stood. To accept that from a woman, and then to go away!"

"What would you?" asked Evelina again. A curious, tigerish impulse was taking definite shape in her. "Would you have him marry her?"

"Marry her? A thousand times, yes, if she would stoop so low! What man is worthy of a woman who saves his life at the risk of her own?"

"Disfigured? asked Evelina, in an odd voice.

"Yes," cried Ralph, "with the scars she bore for him!"

There was a tense, painful interval. Miss Evelina was grappling with a hideous temptation. One word from her, and she was revenged upon Anthony Dexter for all the years of suffering. One word from her, and sure payment would be made in the most subtle, terrible way. She guessed that he could not bear the condemnation of this idolised son.

The old pain gnawed at her heart. Anthony Dexter had come back, she had had her little hour of triumph, and still she had not been freed. The Piper had told her that only forgiveness could loosen her chains. And how could Anthony Dexter be forgiven, when even his son said that he was a coward and a cur?

"I--" Miss Evelina's lips moved, then became still.

"And so," said Ralph, "you have gone veiled ever since, for the sake of that beast?"

"No, it was for my own sake. Do you wonder that I have done it? When I first realised what had happened, in an awful night that turned my brown hair white, I knew that Love and I were strangers forevermore.

"When I left the hospital, I was obliged, for a time, to wear it. The new skin was tender and bright red; it broke very easily."

"I know," nodded Ralph.

"There were oils to be kept upon it, too, and so I wore the veil. I became accustomed to the shelter of it. I could walk the streets and see, dimly, without being seen. In those days, I thought that, perhaps, I might meet--him."

"I don't wonder you shrank from it," returned Ralph. His voice was almost inaudible.

"It became harder still to put it by. My heart was broken, and it shielded me as a long, black veil shields a widow. It protected me from curious questions. Never but once or twice in all the twenty-five years have I been asked about it, and then, I simply did not answer. People, after all, are very kind."

"Were you never ill?"

"Never, though every night of my life I have prayed for death. At first, I clung to it without reason, except what I have told you, then, later on, I began to see a further protection. Veiled as I was, no man would ever love me again. I should never be tempted to trust, only to be betrayed. Not that I ever could trust, you understand, but still, sometimes," concluded Miss Evelina, piteously, "I think the heart of a woman is strangely hungry for love."

"I understand," said Ralph, "and, believe me, I do not blame you. Perhaps it was the best thing you could do. Let me ask you of the man. You said, I think, that he still lives?"

"Yes." Miss Evelina's voice was very low.

"He is well and happy--prosperous?"

"Yes."

"Do you know where he lives?"

"Yes."

"Has he ever suffered at all from his cowardice, his shirking?"

"How should I know?"

"Then, Miss Evelina," said Ralph, his voice thick with passion and his hands tightly clenched, "will you let me go to him? For the honour of men, I should like to punish this one brute. I think I could present an argument that even he might understand!"

The temptation became insistent. The sheathed dagger was in Evelina's hands; she had only to draw forth the glittering steel. A vengeance more subtle than she had ever dared to dream of was hers to command.

"Tell me his name," breathed Ralph. "Only tell me his name!"

Miss Evelina threw back her beautiful head proudly. "No," she said, firmly, "I will not. Go," she cried, pointing uncertainly to the door. "For the love of God, go!"