XXVI. The Lifting of the Veil
 

From afar, at the turn of night, came the pipes o' Pan--the wild, mysterious strain which had first summoned Evelina from pain to peace. At the sound, she sat up in bed, her heavy, lustreless white hair falling about her shoulders. She guessed that Piper Tom was out upon the highway, with his pedler's pack strapped to his sturdy back. As in a vision, she saw him marching onward from place to place, to make the world easier for all women because a woman had given him life, and because he loved another woman in another way.

Was it always to be so, she wondered; should she for ever thirst while others drank? While others loved, must she eternally stand aside heart-hungry? Unyielding Fate confronted her, veiled inscrutably, but she guessed that the veil concealed a mocking smile.

Out of her Nessus-robe of agony, Evelina had emerged with one truth. Whatever is may not be right, but it is the outcome of deep and far-reaching forces with which our finite hands may not meddle. The problem has but one solution--adjustment. Hedged in by the iron bars of circumstance as surely as a bird within his cage, it remains for the individual to choose whether he will beat his wings against the bars until he dies, or take his place serenely on the perch ordained for him--and sing.

Within his cage, the bird may do as he likes. He may sleep or eat or bathe, or whet his beak uselessly against the cuttlebone thrust between the bars. He may hop about endlessly and chirp salutations to other birds, likewise caged, or he may try his eager wings in a flight which is little better than no flight at all. His cage may be a large one, yet, if he explores far enough, he will most surely bruise his body against the bars of circumstance. With beak and claws and constant toil he may, perhaps, force an opening in the bars wide enough to get through, slowly, and with great discomfort. He has gained, however, only a larger cage.

If he is a wise bird, he settles down and tries to become satisfied with his surroundings; even to gather pleasure from the gilt wires and the cuttlebone thrust picturesquely between them. When the sea gull wings his majestic way past his habitation, free as the wind itself, the wise bird will close his eyes, and affect not to see. So, also, will the gull, for there is no loneliness comparable with unlimited freedom.

Upon the heights, the great ones stand--alone. To the dweller in the valley, those distant peaks are clad in more than mortal splendour. Time and distance veil the jagged cliffs and hide the precipices. Day comes first to the peaks and lingers there longest; while it is night in the valley, there is still afterglow upon the hills.

Perhaps, some dweller in the valley longs for the height, and sets forth, heeding not the eager hands that, selfishly, as it seems, would keep him within their loving reach. Having once turned his face upward, he does not falter, even for the space of a backward look. He finds that the way is steep, that there is no place to rest, and that the comfort and shelter of the valley are unknown. The sun burns him, and the cold freezes his very blood, for there are only extremes on the way to the peak. Glittering wastes of ice dazzle him and snow blinds him, with terror and not with beauty as from below. The opaline mists are gone, and he sees with dreadful clearness the path which lies immediately ahead.

Beyond, there is emptiness, vast as the desert. At the timber line, he pauses, and, for the first time, looks back. Ah, how fair the valley lies below him! The silvery ribbon of the river winds through a pageantry of green and gold. Upon the banks are woodland nooks, fragrant with growing things and filled with a tender quiet broken only by the murmer of the stream. The turf is soft and cool to the wayfarer's tired feet, and there is crystal water in abundance to quench his thirst.

But, from the peak, no traveller returns, for the way is hopelessly cut off. Above the timber line there is only a waste of rock, worn by vast centuries in which every day is an ordinary lifetime, into small, jagged stones that cut the feet. The crags are thunder-swept and blown by cataclysmic storms of which the dwellers in the valley have never dreamed. In the unspeakable loneliness, the pilgrim abides for ever with his mocking wreath of laurel, cheered only by a rumbling, reverberant "All Hail!" which comes, at age-long intervals, from some peak before whose infinite distance his finite sight fails.

At intervals throughout the day, Miss Evelina heard the Piper's flute, always from the hills. Each time it brought her comfort, for she knew that, as yet, he had not gone. Once she fancied that he had gone long ago, and some woodland deity, magically transported from ancient Greece, had taken his place. Late in the afternoon, she heard it once, but so far and faintly that she guessed it was for the last time.

In her garden there were flowers, blooming luxuriantly. From their swaying censers, fragrant incense filled the air. The weeds had been taken out and no trace was left. From the garden of her heart the weeds were gone, too, but there were no flowers. Rue and asphodel had been replaced by lavender and rosemary; the deadly black poppy had been uprooted, and where it had grown there were spikenard and balm. Yet, as the Piper had said, she asked for roses, and it is not every garden in which roses will bloom.

At dusk she went out into her transformed garden. Where once the thorns had held her back, the paths were straight and smooth. Dense undergrowth and clinging vines no longer made her steps difficult. Piper Tom had made her garden right, and opened before her, clearly, the way of her soul.

In spite of the beauty there was desolation, because the cheery presence had gone to return no more. Her loneliness was so acute that it was almost pain, and yet the pain was bearable, because he had taught her how to endure and to look beyond.

Fairy-like, the white moths fluttered through the garden, and the crickets piped cheerily. Miss Evelina stopped her ears that she might not hear their piping, rude reminder, as it was, of music that should come no more, but, even so, she could not shut out remembrance.

With a flash of her old resentment, she recalled how everything upon which she had ever depended had been taken away from her, almost immediately. No sooner had she learned the sweetness of clinging than she had been forced to stand alone. One by one the supports had been removed, until she stood alone, desolate and wretched, indeed, but alone. Of such things as these self-reliance is made.

Suddenly, the still air seemed to stir. A sound that was neither breath nor music, so softly was it blown, echoed in from the hills. Then came another and another--merest hints of melody, till at last she started up, trembling. Surely these distant flutings were the pipes o' Pan!

She set herself to listen, her tiny hands working convulsively. Nearer and nearer the music came, singing of wind and stream and mountain--the "music that had no tune." No sooner had it become clear than it ceased altogether.

But, an hour or so afterward, when the moon had risen, there was a familiar step upon the road outside. Veiled, Evelina went to the gate and met Piper Tom, whose red feather was aloft in his hat again and whose flute was slung over his shoulder by its accustomed cord. His pedler's pack was not to be seen.

"I thought you had gone," she said.

"I had," he answered, "but 't is not written, I'm thinking, that a man may not change his mind as well as a woman. My heart would not let my feet go away from you until I knew for sure whether or not you were mocking me last night."

"Mocking you? No! Surely you know I would never do that?"

"No, I did not know. The ways of women are strange, I'm thinking, past all finding out. In truth, 't would be stranger if you were not mocking me than it ever could be if you were. Tell me," he pleaded, "ah, tell me what you were meaning, in words so plain that I can understand!"

"Come," said Evelina; "come to where we were sitting last night and I will tell you." He followed her back to the maple beside the broken wall, where the two chairs still faced each other. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and looked at her so keenly that she felt, in spite of the darkness and her veil, that he must see her face.

"Piper Tom," she said, "when you came to me, I was the most miserable woman on earth. I had been most cruelly betrayed, and sorrow seized upon me when I was not strong enough to stand it. It preyed upon me until it became an obsession--it possessed me absolutely, and from it there was no escape but death."

"I know," answered the Piper. "I found the bottle that had held the dreamless sleep. I'm thinking you had thrown it away."

"Yes, I had thrown it away, but only because I was too proud to die at his door--do you understand?"

"Yes, I'm thinking I understand, but go on. You've not told me whether or no you mocked me. What did you mean?"

"I meant," said Evelina, steadfastly, "that if you cared for the woman you had led out of the shadow of the cypress, and for all that was in her heart to give you, she was yours. Not only out of gratitude, but because you have put trust into a heart that has known no trust since its betrayal, and because, where trust is, there may some day come--more."

Her voice sank almost to a whisper, but Piper Tom heard it. He took her hand in his own, and she felt him tremble--she was the strong one, now.

"Spinner in the Sun," he began, huskily, "were you meaning that you'd go with me when I took the highway again, and help me make the world easier for everybody with a hurt heart?"

"Yes," she answered. "You called me and I came--for always."

"Were you meaning that you'd face the storms and the cold with me, and take no heed of the rain--that you'd live on the coarse fare I could pick up from day to day, and never mind it?"

"Yes, I meant all that."

"Were you meaning, perhaps, that you'd make a home for me? Ah, Spinner in the Sun, it takes a woman to make a home!"

"Yes, I'd make a home, or go gypsying with you, just as you chose."

The Piper laughed, with inexpressible tenderness. "You know, I'm thinking, that 't would be a home, and not gypsying--that I'd not let you face anything I could shield you from."

Evelina laughed, too--a low, sweet laugh. "Yes, I know," she said.

The Piper turned away, struggling with temptation. At length he came back to her. "'T is wrong of me, I'm thinking, but I take you as a man takes Heaven, and we'll do the work together. 'T is as though I had risen from the dead and the gates of pearl were open, with all the angels of God beckoning me in."

In the exaltation that was upon him, he had no thought of profaning her by a touch. She stood apart from him as something high and holy, enthroned in a sacred place.

"Beloved," he pleaded, "will you be coming; with me now to the place where I saw you first? 'T is night now, and then 'twas day, but I'm thinking the words are wrong. 'T is day now, with the sun and moon and stars all shining at once and suns that I never saw before. Will you come?"

"I'll go wherever you lead me," she answered. "While you hold my hand in yours, I can never be afraid."

They went through the night together, taking the shorter way over the hills. She stumbled and he took her hand, his own still trembling. "Close your beautiful eyes," he whispered, "and trust me to lead you."

Though she did not close her eyes, she gave herself wholly to his guidance, noting how he chose for himself the rougher places to give her the easier path. He pushed aside the undergrowth before her, lifted her gently over damp hollows, and led her around the stones.

At last they came to the woods that opened out upon the upper river road, where she had stood the day she had been splashed with mud from Anthony Dexter's wheels, and, at the same instant, had heard the mysterious flutings from afar. They entered near the hill to which her long wandering had led her, and at the foot of it, the Piper paused.

"You'll have no fear, I'm thinking, since the moon makes the clearing as bright as day, and I'll not be letting you out of my sight. I have a fancy to stand upon yonder level place and call you as I called you once before. Only, this time, the heart of me will dance to my own music, for I know you'll be coming all the while I play."

He left her and clambered up the hill to the narrow ledge which sloped back, and was surrounded with pines. He kept in the open spaces, so that the moonlight was always upon him, and she did not lose sight of him more than once or twice, and then only for a moment. The hill was not a high one and the ascent was very gradual. Within a few minutes, he had gained his place.

Clear and sweet through the moonlit forest rang out the pipes o' Pan, singing of love and joy. Never before had the Piper's flute given forth such music as this. The melody was as instinctive as the mating-call of a thrush, as crystalline as a mountain stream, and as pure as the snow from whence the stream had come.

Evelina climbed to meet him, her face and heart uplifted. The silvery notes dropped about her like rain as she ascended, strangely glad and strangely at peace. When she reached the level place where he was standing, his face illumined with unspeakable joy. He dropped his flute and opened his arms.

"My Spinner in the Sun," he whispered, "I called you, and you came."

"Yes," she answered, from his close embrace, "you called me, and I have come--for always."

At last, he released her and they stood facing each other. The Piper was stirred to the depths of his soul. "Last night I dreamed," he said, "and 't was the dream that brought me back. It was a little place, with a brook close by, and almost too small to be called a house, but 'twas a home, I'm thinking, because you were there. It was night, and I had come back from making the world a bit easier for some poor woman-soul, and you were standing in the door, waiting.

"The veil was gone, and there was love on your face--ah, I've often dreamed a woman was waiting for me so, but because you hide your beauty from me, 't is not for me to be asking more. God knows I have enough given me, now.

"Since the first, I've known you were very beautiful, and very brave. I knew, too, that you were sad--that you had been through sorrows no man would dare to face. I've dreamed your eyes were like the first violets of Spring, your lips deep scarlet like the Winter berries, and I know the wonder of your hair, for The veil does not hide it all. I've dreamed your face was cold and pure, as if made from marble, yet tender, too, and I well know that it's noble past all words of mine, because it bears brave scars.

"I've told you I would never ask, and I'll keep my word, for I know well 't is not for the likes of me to see it, but only to dream. Don't think I'm asking, for I never will, but, Spinner in the Sun, because you said you would fare with me on the highway and face the cold and storm, it gives me courage to ask for this.

"If I close my eyes, will you lift your veil, and let me kiss the brave scars, that were never from sin or shame? The brave scars, Beloved--ah, if you would let me, only once, kiss the brave scars!"

Evelina laughed--a laugh that was half a sob--and leaning forward, full into the moonlight, she lifted her veil--for ever.