III. The Pearls
 

A rap at the door roused Miss Evelina from a deadly stupor which seemed stabbed through with daggers of pain. She sat quite still, determined not to open the door. Presently, she heard the sound of retreating footsteps, and was reassured. Then she saw a bit of folded paper which had been slipped under the door, and, mechanically, she picked it up.

"Here's your supper," the note read, briefly. "When you get done, leave the tray outside. I'll come and get it. I would like to have you come over if you want to.--Mehitable Smith."

Touched by the unexpected kindness, Miss Evelina took in the tray. There was a bowl of soup, steaming hot, a baked potato, a bit of thin steak, fried, in country fashion, two crisp, buttered rolls, and a pot of tea. Faint and sick of heart, she pushed it aside, then in simple justice to Miss Hitty, tasted of the soup. A little later, she put the tray out on the doorstep again, having eaten as she had not eaten for months.

She considered the chain of circumstances that had led her back to Rushton. First, the knowledge that Doctor Dexter had left the place for good. She had heard of that, long ago, but, until now, no one had told her that he had returned. She had thought it impossible for him ever to return--even to think of it again,

Otherwise--here the thread of her thought snapped, and she clutched at the vial of laudanum which, as always, was in the bag at her belt. She perceived that the way of escape was closed to her. Broken in spirit though she was, she was yet too proud to die like a dog at Anthony Dexter's door, even after five-and-twenty years.

Bitterest need alone had driven her to take the step which she so keenly regretted now. The death of her mother, hastened by misfortune, had left her with a small but certain income, paid regularly from two separate sources. One source had failed without warning, and her slender legacy was cut literally in two. Upon the remaining half she must eke out the rest of her existence, if she continued to exist at all. It was absolutely necessary for her to come back to the one shelter which she could call her own.

Weary, despairing, and still in the merciless grip of her obsession, she had come--only to find that Anthony Dexter had long since preceded her. A year afterward, Miss Hitty said, he had come back, with a pretty young wife. And he had a son.

The new knowledge hurt, and Evelina had fancied that she could be hurt no more, that she had reached the uttermost limits of pain. By a singular irony, the last refuge was denied her at the very moment of her greatest temptation to avail herself of it. Long hours of thought led her invariably to the one possible conclusion--to avoid every one, keep wholly to herself, and, by starvation, if need be, save enough of her insignificant pittance to take her far away. And after that--freedom.

Since the night of full realisation which had turned her brown hair to a dull white she had thought of death in but one way--escape. Set free from the insufferable bondage of earthly existence. Miss Evelina dreamed of peace as a prisoner in a dungeon may dream of green fields. To sleep and wake no more, never to feel again the cold hand upon her heart that tore persistently at the inmost fibres of it, to forget----

Miss Evelina took the vial from her bag and uncorked it. The incense of the poppies crept subtly through the room, mingling inextricably with the mustiness and the dust. The grey cobwebs swayed at the windows, sunset touching them to iridescence. Conscious that she was the most desolate and lonely thing in all the desolate house, Miss Evelina buried her face in her hands.

The poppies breathed from the vial. In her distorted fancy, she saw vast plains of them, shimmering in the sun--scarlet like the lips of a girl, pink as the flush of dawn upon the eastern sky, blood-red as the passionate heart that never dreamed of betrayal.

The sun was shining on the field of poppies and Miss Evelina walked among them, her face unveiled. Golden masses of bloom were spread at her feet, starred here and there by stately blossoms as white as the blown snow. Her ragged garments touched the silken petals, her worn shoes crushed them, bud and blossom alike. Always, the numbing, sleepy odour came from the field. Dew was on the petals of the flowers; their deep cups gathered it and held it, never to be surrendered, since the dew of the poppies was tears.

Like some evil genius rising from the bottle, the Spirit of the Poppies seemed to incarnate itself in the vapour. A woman with a face of deadly white arose to meet Miss Evelina, with outspread arms. In her eyes was Lethe, in her hands was the gift of forgetfulness. She brought pardon for all that was past and to come, eternal healing, unfathomable oblivion. "Come," the drowsy voice seemed to say. "I have waited long and yet you do not come. The peace that passeth all understanding is mine to give and yours to take. Come--only come! Come! Come!"

Miss Evelina laughed bitterly. Never in all the years gone by had the Spirit of the Poppies pleaded with her thus. Now, at the hour when surrender meant the complete triumph of her enemy, the ghostly figure came to offer her the last and supreme gift.

The afterglow yet lingered in the west. The grey of a March twilight was in the valley, but it was still late afternoon on the summit of the hill. Miss Evelina drew her veil about her and went out into the garden, the vial in her hand.

Where was it that she had planted the poppies? Through the mass of undergrowth and brambles, she made scant headway. Thorns pressed forward rudely as if to stab the intruder. Vines, closely matted, forbade her to pass, yet she kept on until she reached the western slope of the garden.

Here, unshaded, and in the full blaze of the Summer sun, the poppies had spread their brilliant pageantry. In all the village there had been no such poppies as grew in Evelina's garden. Now they were dead and only the overgrown stubble was left.

"Dust to dust, earth to earth, and ashes to ashes." The solemn words of the burial service were chanted in her consciousness as she lifted the vial high and emptied it. She held it steadily until the last drop was drained from it. The poppies had given it and to the poppies she had returned it. She put the cork into the empty vial and flung it far away from her, then turned back to the house.

There was a sound of wheels upon the road. Miss Evelina hastened her steps, but the dense undergrowth made walking difficult. Praying that she might not be seen, she turned her head.

Anthony Dexter, in the doctor's carriage, was travelling at a leisurely pace. As he passed the old house, he glanced at it mechanically, from sheer force of habit. Long ago, it had ceased to have any definite meaning for him. Once he had even stripped every white rose from the neglected bush at the gate, to take to his wife, who, that day, for the first time, had held their son in her arms.

Motionless in the wreck of the garden, a veiled figure stood with averted face. Doctor Dexter looked keenly for an instant in the fast gathering twilight, then whipped up his horse, and was swiftly out of sight. Against his better judgment, he was shaken in mind and body. Could he have seen a ghost? Nonsense! He was tired, he had overworked, he had had an hallucination. His cool, calm, professional sense fought with the insistent idea. It was well that Ralph was coming to relieve his old father of a part of his burden.

Meanwhile, Miss Evelina, her frail body quivering as though under the lash, crept back into the house. With the sure intuition of a woman, she knew who had driven by in the first darkness. That he should dare! That he should actually trespass upon her road; take the insolent liberty of looking at her house!

"A pretty young wife," Miss Hitty had said. Yes, doubtless a pretty one. Anthony Dexter delighted in the beauty of a woman in the same impersonal way that another man would regard a picture. And a son. A straight, tall young fellow, doubtless, with eyes like his father's--eyes that a woman would trust, not dreaming of the false heart and craven soul. Why had she been brought here to suffer this last insult, this last humiliation? Weakly, as many a woman before her, Miss Evelina groped in the maze of Life, searching for some clue to its blind mystery.

Was it possible that she had not suffered enough? If five-and-twenty years of sodden misery were not sufficient for one who had done no wrong, what punishment would be meted out to a sinner by a God who was always kind? Miss Evelina's lips curled scornfully. She had taken what he should have borne--Anthony Dexter had gone scot free.

"The man sins and the woman pays." The cynical saying, which, after all, is not wholly untrue, took shape in her thought and said itself--aloud. Yet it was not altogether impossible that he might yet be made to pay--could be--

Her cheeks burned and her hands closed tightly. What if she were the chosen instrument? What if she had been sent here, after all the dead, miserable years, for some purpose which hitherto she had not guessed?

What if she, herself, with her veiled face, were to be the tardy avenger of her own wrong? Her soul stirred in its despair as the dead might stir in the winding sheet. Out of her sodden grief, could she ever emerge--alive?

"The fire was kind," said Miss Evelina, in a whisper. "It showed me the truth. The fire was kind and God is kind. He has brought me here to pay my debt--in full."

She began to consider what she might do that would hurt Anthony Dexter and make him suffer as she had suffered for half a lifetime. If he had forgotten, she would make him remember--ah, yes, he must remember before he could be hurt. But what could she do? What had he given her aside from the misery that she hungered to give back to him?

The pearls! Miss Evelina lighted her candle and hurried upstairs.

In her dower chest, beneath the piles of heavy, yellowed linen, was a small jewel case. She knelt before the chest, gasping, and thrust her questioning fingers down through the linen to the solid oak. With a little cry, she rose to her feet, the jewel case in her hand.

The purple velvet was crushed, the satin was yellowed, but the string of pearls was there--yellowed, too, by the slow passage of the years. One or two of them were black. A slip of paper fluttered out as she opened the case, and she caught it as it fell. The paper was yellow and brittle and the ink had faded, but the words were still there, written in Anthony Dexter's clear, bold hand; "First from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of my love."

"Depths!" muttered Miss Evelina, from between her clenched teeth.

Once the necklace had been beautiful--a single strand of large, perfectly matched pearls. The gold of the clasp was dull, but the diamond gleamed like the eye of some evil thing. She wound the necklace twice about her wrist, then shuddered, for it was cold and smooth and sinuous, like a snake.

She coiled the discoloured necklace carefully upon its yellowed satin bed, laid the folded slip of paper over it, and closed it with a snap. To-morrow--no, this very night, Anthony Dexter should have the pearls, that had come first from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of his love.

No hand but hers should give them back, for she saw it written in the scheme of vengeance that she herself should, mutely, make him pay. She felt a new strength of body and a fresh clearness of mind as, with grim patience, she set herself to wait.

The clocks in the house were all still. Miss Evelina's watch had long ago been sold. There was no town clock in the village, but the train upon which she had come was due shortly after midnight. She knew every step of the way by dark as well as by daylight, but the night was clear and there would be the light of the dying moon,

Her own clouded skies were clearing. Dimly she began to perceive herself as a part of things, not set aside helplessly to suffer eternally, but in some sort of relation to the rest of the world.

On the Sunday before the catastrophe, Miss Evelina had been to church, and even yet, she remembered fragments of the sermon. "God often uses people to carry out His plans," the minister had said. At the time, it had not particularly impressed her, and she had never gone to church again. If she had listened further, she might have heard the minister say that the devil was wont to do the same thing.

Minute by minute, the hours passed. Miss Evelina's heart was beating painfully, but, all unknowingly, she had entered upon a new phase. She had turned in the winding sheet of her own weaving, and her hands were clutching at the binding fabric.

At last, the train came in. It did not stop, but thundered through the sleeping village, shrieking as it went. The sound died into a distant rumble, then merged into the stillness of the night. Miss Evelina rose from her chair, put on her wraps, slipped the jewel case into her bag, and went out, closely veiled.

The light of the waning moon was dim and, veiled as she was, she felt rather than saw the way. Steadfastly, she went down the steep road, avoiding the sidewalk, for she remembered that Miss Mehitable's ears were keen. Past the crossroads, to the right, down into the village, across the tracks, then sharply to the left--the way was the same, but the wayfarer was sadly changed.

She went unemotionally, seeing herself a divinely appointed instrument of vengeance. Something outside her obsession had its clutch upon her also, but it was new, and she did not guess that it was fully as hideous.

Doctor Dexter's house was near the corner on a shaded street. At the gate. Miss Evelina paused and, with her veil lifted, carefully scrutinised the house for a possible light. She feared that some one might be stirring, late as it was, but the old housekeeper always went to bed promptly at nine, and on this particular night, Anthony Dexter had gone to his room at ten, making sleep sure by a drug.

With hushed steps, Miss Evelina went furtively up to the house on the bare earth beside the brick pavement. She was in a panic of fear, but something beyond her control urged her on. Reaching the steps, she hesitated, baffled for the moment, then sank to her knees. Slowly she crept to the threshold, placed the jewel case so that it would fall inward when the door was opened, and started back. Instinct bade her hurry, but reason made her cautious. She forced herself to walk slowly and to muffle the latch of the gate with her skirts as she had done when she came in.

It seemed an hour before she crossed the tracks again, at the deserted point she had chosen, but, in reality, it was only a few minutes. At last she reached home, utterly exhausted by the strain she had put upon herself. She had seen no one, heard no footstep save her own; she had gone and returned as mysteriously as the night itself.

When she slept, she dreamed of the poppy bed on the western slope of the garden. It was twilight, and she stood there with a vial of laudanum in one hand and a necklace of discoloured pearls in the other. She poured the laudanum upon the earth and a great black poppy with a deadly fragrance sprang up at her feet. Then Anthony Dexter drove up in a carriage and took the pearls away from her. She could not see him clearly, because his face was veiled, like her own.

The odour of the black poppy made her faint and she went into the house to escape from it, but the scent of it clung to her garments and hands and could not be washed away.