XXI. The Poppies Claim Their Own
 

It was dusk, and Anthony Dexter sat in the library. Through the day, he had wearied himself to the point of exhaustion, but his phantom pursuer had not tired. The veiled figure of Evelina had kept pace easily with his quick, nervous stride. At the point on the river road, where he had met her for the first time, she had, indeed, seemed to go ahead of him and wait for him there.

Night brought no relief. By a singular fatality, he could see her in darkness as plainly as in sunshine, and even when his eyes were closed, she hovered persistently before him. Throughout his drugged sleep she moved continuously; he never dreamed save of her.

In days gone by, he had been certain that he was the victim of an hallucination, but now, he was not so sure. He would not have sworn that the living Evelina was not eternally in his sight. Time and time again he had darted forward quickly to catch her, but she swiftly eluded him. "If," he thought, gritting his teeth, "I could once get my hands upon her----"

His fists dosed tightly, then, by a supreme effort of will, he put the maddening thought away. "I will not add murder to my sins," he muttered; "no, by Heaven, I will not!"

By a whimsical change of his thought, he conceived himself dead and in his coffin. Would Evelina pace ceaselessly before him then? When he was in his grave, would she wait eternally at the foot of it, and would those burning eyes pierce the shielding sod that parted them? Life had not served to separate them--could he hope that Death would prove potent where Life had failed?

Ralph came in, tired, having done his father's work for the day. The room was wholly dark, but he paused upon the threshold, conscious that some one was there.

"Alone, father?" he called, cheerily.

"No," returned Anthony Dexter, grimly.

"Who's here?" asked Ralph, stumbling into the room. "It's so dark, I can't see."

Fumbling for a match, he lighted a wax candle which stood in an antique candlestick on the library table. The face of his father materialised suddenly out of the darkness, wearing an expression which made Ralph uneasy.

"I thought," he said, troubled, "that some one was with you."

"Aren't you here?" asked Anthony Dexter, trying to make his voice even.

"Oh," returned Ralph. "I see."

With the candle flickering uncertainly between them, the two men faced each other. Sharp shadows lay on the floor and Anthony Dexter's profile was silhouetted upon the opposite wall. He noted that the figure of Evelina, pacing to and fro, cast no shadow. It seemed strange.

In the endeavour to find some interesting subject upon which to talk, Ralph chanced upon the fatal one. "Father," he began, "you know that this morning we were speaking of Miss Evelina?"

The tone was inquiring, but there was no audible answer.

"Well," continued Ralph, "I saw her again to-day. And I saw her face." He had forgotten that his father had seen it, also, and had told him only yesterday.

Anthony Dexter almost leaped from his chair--toward the veiled figure now approaching him. "Did--did she show you her face?" he asked with difficulty.

"No. It was an accident. She often left the front door open for me when I was attending--Araminta--and so, to-day, when I found it open, I went in. She was asleep, on the couch in the parlour, and she wore no veil."

At once, the phantom Evelina changed her tactics. Hitherto, she had walked back and forth from side to side of his vision. Now she advanced slowly toward him and as slowly retreated. Her face was no longer averted; she walked backward cautiously, then advanced. From behind her veil, he could feel her burning, accusing eyes.

"Father," said Ralph, "she is beautiful. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in all my life. Her face is as exquisite as if chiselled in marble, and you never saw such eyes. And she wears that veil all the time."

Anthony Dexter's cold fingers were forced to drum on the table with apparent carelessness. Yes, he knew she was beautiful. He had not forgotten it for an instant since she had thrown back her veil and faced him. "Did--did she tell you why?" he asked.

"Yes," answered Ralph. "She told me why."

A sword, suspended by a single hair, seemed swaying uncertainly over Anthony Dexter's head--a two-edged sword, sure to strike mercilessly if it fell. Ralph's eyes were upon him, but not in contempt. God, in His infinite pity, had made them kind.

"Father," said Ralph, again, "she would not tell the name of the man, though I begged her to." Anthony Dexter's heart began to beat again, slowly at first, then with a sudden and unbearable swiftness. The blood thundered in his ears like the roar of a cataract. He could hardly hear what Ralph was saying.

"It was in a laboratory," the boy continued, though the words were almost lost. "She was there with the man she loved and whom she was pledged to marry. He was trying a new experiment, and she was watching. While he was leaning over the retort to put in another chemical, she heard the mass seethe, and pushed him away, just in time to save him.

"There was an explosion, and she was terribly burned. He was not touched, mind you--she had saved him. They took her to the hospital, and wrapped her in bandages. He went there only once. There was another girl there, named Evelyn Grey, who was so badly burned that every feature was destroyed. The two names became confused, and a mistake was made. They told him she would be disfigured for life, and so he went away."

The walls of the room swayed as though they were of fabric. The floor undulated; his chair rocked dizzily. Out of the accusing silence, Thorpe's words leaped to mock him:

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 . . . 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," Ralph was saying, "you do not seem to understand. I suppose it is difficult for you to comprehend such cowardice--you have always done the square thing." The man winced, but the boy did not see it.

"Try to think of a brute like that, Father, and be glad that our name means 'right.' She saved him from terrible disfigurement if not from death. Having instinctively thrown up her right arm, she got the worst of it there, and on her shoulder. Her face was badly burned, but not so deeply as to be scarred. She showed me her shoulder--it is awful. I never had seen anything like it. She said her arm was worse, but she did not show me that."

"He never knew?" asked Anthony Dexter, huskily. Ralph seemed to be demanding something of him, and the veiled figure, steadily advancing and retreating, demanded more still.

"No," answered Ralph, "he never knew. He went to the hospital only once. He had told her that very day that he loved her for the beautiful soul she had, and at the test, his love failed. He never saw her again. He went away, and married, and he has a son. Think of the son, Father, only think of the son! Suppose he knew it! How could he ever bear a disgrace like that!"

"I do not know," muttered Anthony Dexter. His lips were cold and stiff and he did not recognise his own voice.

"When she understood what had happened," Ralph continued, "and how he had deserted her for ever, after taking his cowardly life from her as a gift, her hair turned white. She has wonderful hair. Father--it's heavy and white and dull--it does not shine. She wore the veil at first because she had to, because her face was healing, and before it had wholly healed she had become accustomed to the shelter of it. Then, too, as she said, it kept people away from her--she could not be tempted to love or trust again."

There was an interval of silence, though the very walls seemed to be crying out: "Tell him! Tell him! Confess, and purge your guilty soul!" The clock ticked loudly, the blood roared in his ears. His hands were cold and almost lifeless; his body seemed paralysed, but he heard, so acutely that it was agony.

"Miss Evelina said," resumed Ralph, "that she did not think he had told his son. Do you know what I was thinking, Father, while she was talking? I was thinking of you, and how you had always done the square thing."

It seemed to Anthony Dexter that all the tortures of his laboratory had been chemically concentrated and were being poured out upon his head. "Our name means 'right,'" said the boy, proudly, and the man writhed in his chair.

For a moment, the ghostly Evelina went to Ralph, her hands outstretched in disapproval. Immediately she returned to her former position, advancing, retreating, advancing, retreating, with the regularity of the tide.

"I begged her," continued Ralph, "to tell me the man's name, but she would not. He still lives, she said, he is happy and prosperous and he has not suffered at all. For the honour of men, I want to punish that brute. Father, do you know that when I think of a cur like that, I believe I could rend him with my own hands?"

Anthony Dexter got to his feet unsteadily. The mists about him cleared and the veiled figure whisked suddenly out of his sight. He went up to Ralph as he might walk to the scaffold, but his head was held high. All the anguish of his soul crystallised itself into one passionate word:

"Strike!"

For an instant the boy faced him, unbelieving. Then he remembered that his father had seen Miss Evelina's face, that he must have known she was beautiful--and why she wore the veil. "Father!" he cried, shrilly. "Oh, never you!"

Anthony Dexter looked into the eyes of his son until he could bear to look no more. The veiled figure no longer stood between them, but something else was there, infinitely more terrible. As he had watched the beating of the dog's bared heart, the man watched the boy's face. Incredulity, amazement, wonder, and fear resolved themselves gradually into conviction. Then came contempt, so deep and profound and permanent that from it there could never be appeal. With all the strength of his young and knightly soul, Ralph despised his father--and Anthony Dexter knew it.

"Father," whispered the boy, hoarsely, "it was never you! Tell me it isn't true! Just a word, and I'll believe you! For the sake of our manhood, Father, tell me it isn't true!"

Anthony Dexter's head drooped, his eyes lowered before his son's. The cold sweat dripped from his face; his hands groped pitifully, like those of a blind man, feeling his way in a strange place.

His hands fumbled helplessly toward Ralph's and the boy shrank back as though from the touch of a snake. With a deep-drawn breath of agony, the man flung himself, unseeing, out of the room. Ralph reeled like a drunken man against his chair. He sank into it helplessly and his head fell forward on the table, his shoulders shaking with that awful grief which knows no tears.

"Father!" he breathed. "Father! Father!"

Upstairs, Anthony Dexter walked through the hall, followed, or occasionally preceded, by the ghostly figure of Evelina. Her veil was thrown back now, and seemed a part of the mist which surrounded her. Sometimes he had told a patient that there was never a point beyond which human endurance could not be made to go. He knew now that he had lied.

Ralph's unspoken condemnation had hurt him cruelly. He could have borne words, he thought, better than that look on his son's face. For the first time, he realised how much he had cared for Ralph; how much--God help him!--he cared for him still.

Yet above it all, dominant, compelling, was man's supreme passion--that for his mate. As Evelina moved before him in her unveiled beauty, his hungry soul leaped to meet hers. Now, strangely, he loved her as he had loved her in the long ago, yet with an added grace. There was an element in his love that had never been there before--the mysterious bond which welds more firmly into one, two who have suffered together.

He hungered for Ralph--for the strong young arm thrown about his shoulders in friendly fashion, for the eager, boyish laugh, the hearty word. He hungered for Evelina, radiant with a beauty no woman had ever worn before. Far past the promise of her girlhood, the noble, transfigured face, with its glory of lustreless white hair, set his pulses to throbbing wildly. And subtly, unconsciously, but not the less surely, he hungered for death.

Anthony Dexter had cherished no sentiment about the end of life; to him it had seemed much the same as the stopping of a clock, and of as little moment. He had failed to see why such a fuss was made about the inevitable, though he had at times been scientifically interested in the hysterical effect he had produced in a household by announcing that within an hour or so a particular human clock might be expected to stop. It had never occurred to him, either, that a man had not a well-defined right to stop the clock of his own being whenever it seemed desirable or expedient.

Now he thought of death as the final, beautiful solution of all mundane problems. If he were dead, Ralph could not look at him with contempt; the veiled--or unveiled--Evelina could not haunt him as she had, remorselessly, for months. Yes, death was beautiful, and he well knew how to make it sure.

By an incredibly swift transition, his pain passed into an exquisite pleasure. The woman he loved was walking in the hall before him; the son he loved was downstairs. What man could have more?

  "For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
    The black minute's at end,
  And the elements' rage, the fiend voices that rave,
    Shall dwindle, shall blend,
  Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
    Then a light, then thy breast--
  Oh thou soul of my soul, I shall clasp thee again,
    And with God be the rest!"

The wonderful words sang themselves over in his consciousness. He smiled and the unveiled Evelina smiled back at him, with infinite tenderness, infinite love. To-night he would sleep as he had not slept before--in the sleep that knows no waking.

He had the tiny white tablets, plenty of them, but the fancy seized him to taste this last bitterness to the full. He took a wine glass from his chiffonier--those white, blunt fingers had never been more steady than now. He lifted the vial on high and poured out the laudanum, faltering no more than when he had guided the knife in an operation that made him famous throughout the State.

"Evelina," he said, his voice curiously soft, "I pledge you now, in a bond that cannot break!" Was it fancy, or did the violet eyes soften with tears, even though the scarlet lips smiled?

He drank. The silken petals of the poppies, crushed into the peace that passeth all understanding, began their gentle ministry. He made his way to his bed, put out his candle, and lay down. The Spirit of the Poppies stood before him--a woman with a face like Evelina's, but her garments were scarlet, and Evelina always wore black.

In the darkness, he could not distinguish clearly. "Evelina," he called, aloud, "come! Come to me, and put your hand in mine!"

At once she seemed to answer him, wholly tender, wholly kind. Was he dreaming, or did Evelina come and kneel beside him? He groped for her hand, but it eluded him.

"Evelina," he said, again, "dear heart! Come! Forgive," he breathed, drowsily. "Ah, only forgive!"

Then, as if by a miracle, her hand slipped into his and he felt his head drawn tenderly to man's first and last resting place--a woman's breast.

And so, after a little, Anthony Dexter slept. The Spirit of the Poppies had claimed her own at last.