XXII. Forgiveness
 

Haggard and worn, after a sleepless night, Ralph went down-stairs. Heavily upon his young shoulders, he bore the burden of his father's disgrace. Through their kinship, the cowardice and the shirking became a part of his heritage.

There was nothing to be done, for he could not raise his hand in anger against his own father. They must continue to live together, and keep an unbroken front to the world, even though the bond between them had come to be the merest pretence. He despised his father, but no one must ever know it--not even the father whom he despised. Ralph did not guess that his father had read his face.

He saw, now, why Miss Evelina had refused to tell him the man's name, and he honoured her for her reticence. He perceived, too, the hideous temptation with which she was grappling when she begged him to leave her. She had feared that she would tell him, and he must never let her suspect that he knew.

The mighty, unseen forces that lie beneath our daily living were surging through Ralph's troubled soul. Love, hatred, shame, remorse, anger, despair--the words are but symbols of things that work devastation within.

Behold a man, in all outward seeming a gentleman. Observe his courtesy, refinement, and consideration, his perfect self-control. Note his mastery of the lower nature, and see the mind in complete triumph over the beast. Remark his education, the luxury of his surroundings, and the fine quality of his thought. Wonder at the high levels whereon his life is laid, and marvel at the perfect adjustment between him and his circumstances. Subject this man to the onslaught of some vast, cyclonic passion, and see the barriers crumble, then fall. See all the artifice of civilisation swept away at one fell stroke, and behold your gentleman, transformed in an instant into a beast, with all a beast's primeval qualities.

Under stress like this Ralph was fighting to regain his self mastery. He knew that he must force himself to sit opposite his father at the table, and exchange the daily, commonplace talk. No one must ever suspect that anything was amiss--it is this demand of Society which keeps the structure in place and draws the line between civilisation and barbarism. He knew that he never again could look his father straight in the face, that he must always avoid his eyes. It would be hard at first, but Ralph had never given up anything simply because it was difficult.

It was a relief to find that he was downstairs first. Hearing his father's step upon the stair, he thought, would enable him to steel himself more surely to the inevitable meeting. After they had once spoken together, it would be easier. At length they might even become accustomed to the ghastly thing that lay between them and veil it, as it were, with commonplaces.

Ralph took up the morning paper and pretended to read, though the words danced all over the page. The old housekeeper brought in his breakfast, and, likewise, he affected to eat. An hour went by, and still the dreaded step did not sound upon the stair. At length the old housekeeper said, with a certain timid deference:

"Your father's very late this morning, Doctor Ralph. He has never been so late before."

"He'll be down, presently. He's probably overslept."

"It's not your father's way to oversleep. Hadn't you better go up and see?"

Thus forced, Ralph went leisurely up-stairs, intending only to rap upon the door, which was always closed. Perhaps, with the closed door between them, the first speech might be easier.

He rapped once, with hesitation, then again, more definitely. There was no answer. Wholly without suspicion, Ralph opened the door, and went in.

Anthony Dexter lay upon his bed, fully dressed. On his face was a smile of ineffable peace. Ralph went to him quickly, shook him, and felt his pulse, but vainly. The heart of the man made no answer to the questioning fingers of his son. The eyes were closed and, his hands trembling now, Ralph forced them open. The contracted pupils gave him all the information he needed. He found the wineglass, which still smelled of laudanum. He washed it carefully, put it away, then went down-stairs.

His first sensation was entirely relief. Anthony Dexter had chosen the one sure way out. Ralph had a distinct sense of gratitude until he remembered that death did not end disgrace. Never again need he look in his father's eyes; there was no imperative demand that he should conceal his contempt. With the hiding of Anthony Dexter's body beneath the shriving sod, all would be over save memory. Could he put by this memory as his father had his? Ralph did not know.

The sorrowful preliminaries were all over before Ralph's feeling was in any way changed. Then the pity of it all overwhelmed him in a blinding flood.

Searching for something or some one to lean upon, his thought turned to Miss Evelina. Surely, now, he might go to her. If comfort was to be had, of any sort, he could find it there. At any rate, they were bound, much as his father had been bound to her before, by the logic of events.

He went uphill, scarcely knowing how he made his way. Miss Evelina, veiled, as usual, opened the door for him. Ralph stumbled across the threshold, crying out:

"My father is dead! He died by his own hand!"

"Yes," returned Miss Evelina, quietly. "I have heard. I am sorry--for you."

"You need not be," flashed Ralph, quickly. "It is for us, my father and I, to be sorry for you--to make amends, if any amends can be made by the living or the dead."

Miss Evelina started. He knew, then? And it had not been necessary for her to draw out the sheathed dagger which only yesterday she had held in her hand. The glittering vengeance had gone home, through no direct agency of hers.

"Miss Evelina!" cried the boy. "I have come to ask you to forgive my father!"

A silence fell between them, as cold and forbidding as Death itself. After an interval which seemed an hour, Miss Evelina spoke.

"He never asked," she said. Her tone was icy, repellent.

"I know," answered Ralph, despairingly, "but I, his son, ask it. Anthony Dexter's son asks you to forgive Anthony Dexter--not to let him go to his grave unforgiven."

"He never asked," said Miss Evelina again, stubbornly.

"His need is all the greater for that," pleaded the boy, "and mine. Have you thought of my need of it? My name meant 'right' until my father changed its meaning. Don't you see that unless you forgive my father, I can never hold up my head again?"

What the Piper had said to Evelina came back to her now, eloquent with appeal;

The word is not made right. I'm thinking 't is wrong end to, as many things in this world are until we move and look at them from another way. It's giving for, that's all. When you have put self so wholly aside that you can he sorry for him because he has wronged you, why, then you have forgiven.

She moved about restlessly. It seemed to her that she could never be sorry for Anthony Dexter because he had wronged her; that she could never grow out of the hurt of her own wrong.

"Come with me," said Ralph, choking. "I know it's a hard thing I ask of you. God knows I haven't forgiven him myself, but I know I've got to, and you'll have to, too. Miss Evelina, you've got to forgive him, or I never can bear my disgrace."

She let him lead her out of the house. On the long way to Anthony Dexter's, no word passed between them. Only the sound of their footfalls, and Ralph's long, choking breaths, half sobs, broke the silence.

At the gate, the usual knot of curious people had gathered. They were wondering, in undertones, how one so skilful as Doctor Dexter had happened to take an overdose of laudanum, but they stood by, respectfully, to make way for Ralph and the mysterious, veiled woman in black. The audible whispers followed them up to the very door: "Who is she? What had she to do with him?"

As yet, Anthony Dexter's body lay in his own room. Ralph led Miss Evelina in, and closed the door. "Here he is," sobbed the boy. "He has gone and left the shame for me. Forgive him, Miss Evelina! For the love of God, forgive him!"

Evelina sighed. She was standing close to Anthony Dexter now without fear. She had no wish to torture him, as she once had, with the sight of her unveiled face. It was the man she had loved, now--the emotion which had made him hideous to her was past and gone. To her, as to him the night before, death seemed the solution of all problems, the supreme answer to all perplexing questions.

Ralph crept out of the room and closed the door so softly that she did not hear. She was alone, as every woman some day is; alone with her dead.

She threw back her veil. The morning sun lay strong upon Anthony Dexter's face, revealing every line. Death had been kind to him at last, had closed the tortured eyes, blotted out the lines of cruelty around his mouth, and changed the mask-like expression to a tender calm.

A hint of the old, loving smile was there; once again he was the man she had loved, but the love itself had burned out of her heart long ago. He was naught to her, nor she to him.

The door knob turned, and, quickly, she lowered her veil. Piper Tom came in, with a soft, slow step. He did not seem to see Miss Evelina; one would have said he did not know she was in the room. He went straight to Anthony Dexter, and laid his warm hand upon the cold one.

"Man," he said, "I've come to say I forgive you for hurting Laddie. I'm not thinking, now, that you would have done it if you had known. I'm sorry for you because you could do it. I've forgiven you as I hope God will forgive you for that and for everything else."

Then he turned to Evelina, and whispered, as though to keep the dead from hearing: "'T was hard, but I've done it. 'T is easier, I'm thinking, to forgive the dead than the living." He went out again, as silently as he had come, and closed the door.

Was it, in truth, easier to forgive the dead? In her inmost soul, Evelina knew that she could not have cherished lifelong resentment against any other person in the world. To those we love most, we are invariably most cruel, but she did not love him now. The man she had loved was no more than a stranger--and from a stranger can come no intentional wrong.

"O God," prayed Evelina, for the first time, "help me to forgive!"

She threw back her veil once more. They were face to face at last, with only a prayer between. His mute helplessness pleaded with her and Ralph's despairing cry rang in her ears. The estranging mists cleared, and, in truth, she put self aside.

Intuitively, she saw how he had suffered since the night he came to her to make it right, if he could. He must have suffered, unless he were more than human. "Dear God," she prayed, again, "oh, help me forgive!"

All at once there was a change. The light seemed thrown into the uttermost places of her darkened soul. She illumined, and a wave of infinite pity swept her from head to foot. She leaned forward, her hands seeking his, and upon Anthony Dexter's dead face there fell the forgiving baptism of her tears.

In the hall, as she went out, she encountered Miss Mehitable. That face, too, was changed. She had not come, as comes that ghoulish procession of merest acquaintances, to gloat, living, over the helpless dead.

At the sight of Evelina, she retreated. "I'll go back," murmured Miss Mehitable, enigmatically. "You had the best right."

Evelina went down-stairs and home again, but Miss Mehitable did not enter that silent room.

The third day came, and there was no resurrection. Since the miracle of Easter, the world has waited its three days for the dead to rise again. Ralph sat in the upper hall, just beyond the turn of the stair, and beside him, unveiled, was Miss Evelina.

"It's you and I," he had pleaded, "don't you see that? Have you never thought that you should have been my mother?"

From below, in Thorpe's deep voice, came the words of the burial service: "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live."

For a few moments, Thorpe spoke of death as the inevitable end of life, and our ignorance of what lies beyond. He spoke of that mystic veil which never parts save for a passage, and from behind which no word ever comes. He said that life was a rainbow spanning brilliantly the two silences, that man's ceasing was no more strange than his beginning, and that the God who ordained the beginning had also ordained the end. He said, too, that the love which gave life might safely be trusted with that same life, at its mysterious conclusion. At length, he struck the personal note.

"It is hard for me," Thorpe went on, "to perform this last service for my friend. All of you are my friends, but the one who lies here was especially dear. He was a man of few friendships, and I was privileged to come close, to know him as he was.

"His life was clean, and upon his record there rests no shadow of disgrace." At this Ralph, in the upper hall, buried his face in his hands. Miss Evelina sat quietly, to all intents and purposes unmoved.

"He was a brave man," Thorpe was saying; "a valiant soldier on the great battlefield of the world. He met his temptations face to face, and conquered them. For him, there was no such thing as cowardice--he never shirked. He met every responsibility like a man, and never swerved aside. He took his share, and more, of the world's work, and did it nobly, as a man should do.

"His brusque manner concealed a great heart. I fear that, at times, some of you may have misunderstood him. There was no man in our community more deeply and lovingly the friend of us all, and there is no man among us more noble in thought and act than he.

"We who have known him cannot but be the better for the knowing. It would be a beautiful world, indeed, if we were all as good as he. We cannot fail to be inspired by his example. Through knowing him, each of us is better fitted for life. We can conquer cowardice more easily, meet our temptations more valiantly, and more surely keep from the sin of shirking, because Anthony Dexter has lived.

"To me," said Thorpe, his voice breaking, "it is the greatest loss, save one, that I have ever known. But it is only through our own sorrow that we come to understand the sorrow of others, only through our own weaknesses that we learn to pity the weakness of others, and only through our own love and forgiveness that we can ever comprehend the infinite love and forgiveness of God. If any of you have ever thought he wronged you, in some small, insignificant way, I give you my word that it was entirely unintentional, and I bespeak for him your pardon.

"He goes to his grave to-day, to wait, in the great silence, for the final solution of God's infinite mysteries, and, as you and I believe, for God's sure reward. He goes with the love of us all, with the forgiveness of us all, and with the hope of us all that when we come to die, we may be as certain of Heaven as he."

Perceiving that his grief was overmastering him, Thorpe proceeded quickly to the benediction. In the pause that followed, Ralph leaned toward the woman who sat beside him.

"Have you," he breathed, "forgiven him--and me?"

Miss Evelina nodded, her beautiful eyes shining with tears.

"Mother!" said Ralph, thickly. Like a hurt child, he went to her, and sobbed his heart out, in the shelter of her arms.