IV. "From the Depths of his Love"
 

At seven o'clock, precisely, Anthony Dexter's old housekeeper rang the rising bell. Drowsy with the soporific he had taken, the doctor did not at once respond to the summons. In fact, the breakfast bell had rung before he was fully awake.

He dressed leisurely, and was haunted by a vague feeling that something unpleasant had happened. At length he remembered that just before dusk, in the garden of Evelina Grey's old house, he had seen a ghost--a ghost who confronted him mutely with a thing he had long since forgotten.

"It was subjective, purely," mused Anthony Dexter. "I have been working too hard." His reason was fully satisfied with the plausible explanation, but he was not a man who was likely to have an hallucination of any sort.

He was strong and straight of body, finely muscular, and did not look over forty, though it was more than eight years ago that he had reached the fortieth milestone. His hair was thinning a little at the temples and the rest of it was touched generously with grey. His features were regular and his skin clear. A full beard, closely cropped, hid the weakness of his chin, but did not entirely conceal those fine lines about the mouth which mean cruelty.

Someway, in looking at him, one got the impression of a machine, well-nigh perfect of its kind. His dark eyes were sharp and penetrating. Once they had been sympathetic, but he had outgrown that. His hands were large, white, and well-kept, his fingers knotted, and blunt at the tips. He had, pre-eminently, the hand of the surgeon, capable of swiftness and strength, and yet of delicacy. It was not a hand that would tremble easily; it was powerful and, in a way, brutal.

He was thoroughly self-satisfied, as well he might be, for the entire countryside admitted his skill, and even in the operating rooms of the hospitals in the city not far distant. Doctor Dexter's name was well known. He had thought seriously, at times, of seeking a wider field, but he liked the country and the open air, and his practice would give Ralph the opportunity he needed. At his father's death, the young physician would fail heir to a practice which had taken many years of hard work to build up.

At the thought of Ralph, the man's face softened a trifle and his keen eyes became a little less keen. The boy's picture was before him upon his chiffonier. Ralph was twenty-three now and would finish in a few weeks at a famous medical school--Doctor Dexter's own alma mater. He had not been at home since he entered the school, having undertaken to do in three years the work which usually required four.

He wrote frequently, however, and Doctor Dexter invariably went to the post-office himself on the days Ralph's letters were expected. He had the entire correspondence on file and whiled away many a lonely evening by reading and re-reading the breezy epistles. The last one was in his pocket now.

"To think, Father," Ralph had written, "in three weeks more or less, I shall be at home with my sheepskin and a fine new shingle with 'Dr. Ralph Dexter' painted on it, all ready to hang up on the front of the house beside yours. I'll be glad to get out of the grind for a while, I can tell you that. I've worked as His Satanic Majesty undoubtedly does when he receives word that a fresh batch of Mormons has hit the trail for the good-intentions pavement. Decensus facilis Averni. That's about all the Latin I've got left.

"At first, I suppose, there won't be much for me to do. I'll have to win the confidence of the community by listening to the old ladies' symptoms three or four hours a day, regularly. Finally, they'll let me vaccinate the kids and the rest will be pitifully easy. Kids always like me, for some occult reason, and if the children cry for me, it won't be long till I've got your whole blooming job away from you. Never mind, though, dad--I'll be generous and whack up, as you've always done with me."

Remembering the boyishness of it, Anthony Dexter smiled a little and took another satisfying look at the pictured face before him. Ralph's eyes were as his father's had been--frank and friendly and clear, with no hint of suspicion. His chin was firm and his mouth determined, but the corners of it turned up decidedly, and the upper lip was short. The unprejudiced observer would have seen merely an honest, intelligent, manly young fellow, who looked as if he might be good company. Anthony Dexter saw all this--and a great deal more.

It was his pride that he was unemotional. By rigid self-discipline, he had wholly mastered himself. His detachment from his kind was at first spasmodic, then exceptionally complete. Excepting Ralph, his relation to the world was that of an unimpassioned critic. He was so sure of his own ground that he thought he considered Ralph impersonally, also.

Over a nature which, at the beginning, was warmly human, Doctor Dexter had laid this glacial mask. He did what he had to do with neatness and dispatch. If an operation was necessary, he said so at once, not troubling himself to approach the subject gradually. If there was doubt as to the outcome, he would cheerfully advise the patient to make a will first, but there was seldom doubt, for those white, blunt fingers were very sure. He believed in the clean-cut, sudden stroke, and conducted his life upon that basis.

Without so much as the quiver of an eyelash, Anthony Dexter could tell a man that within an hour his wife would be dead. He could predict the death of a child, almost to the minute, without a change in his mask-like expression, and feel a faint throb of professional pride when his prediction was precisely fulfilled. The people feared him, respected him, and admired his skill, but no one loved him except his son.

Among all his acquaintances, there was none who called him friend except Austin Thorpe, the old minister who had but lately come to town. This, in itself, was no distinction, for Thorpe was the friend of every man, woman, child, and animal in the village. No two men could have been more unlike, but friendship, like love, is often a matter of chemical affinity, wherein opposites rush together in obedience to a hidden law.

The broadly human creed of the minister included every living thing, and the man himself interested Doctor Dexter in much the same way that a new slide for his microscope might interest him. They exchanged visits frequently when the duties of both permitted, and the Doctor reflected that, when Ralph came, Thorpe would be lonely.

The Dexter house was an old one but it had been kept in good repair. From time to time, wings had been added to the original structure, until now it sprawled lazily in every direction. One wing, at the right of the house, contained the Doctor's medical library, office, reception room, and laboratory. Doors were arranged in metropolitan fashion, so that patients might go out of the office without meeting any one. The laboratory, at the back of the wing, was well fitted with modern appliances for original research, and had, too, its own outside door.

When Ralph came home, the other wing, at the left of the house, was to be arranged in like manner for him if he so desired. Doctor Dexter had some rough drawings under consideration, but wanted Ralph to order the plans in accordance with his own ideas.

The breakfast bell rang again, and Doctor Dexter went downstairs. The servant met him in the hall. "Breakfast is waiting, sir," she said.

"All right," returned the Doctor, absently. "I'll be there in a moment."

He opened the door for a breath of fresh air, and immediately perceived the small, purple velvet box at his feet. He picked it up, wonderingly, and opened it.

Inside were the discoloured pearls on their bed of yellowed satin, and the ivory-tinted slip of paper on which he had written, so long ago, in his clear, boyish hand: "First, from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of my love."

Being unemotional, he experienced nothing at first, save natural surprise. He stood there, staring into vacancy, idly fingering the pearls. By some evil magic of the moment, the hour seemed set back a full quarter of a century. As though it were yesterday, he saw Evelina before him.

She had been a girl of extraordinary beauty and charm. He had travelled far and seen many, but there had been none like Evelina. How he had loved her, in those dead yesterdays, and how she had loved him! The poignant sweetness of it came back, changed by some fatal alchemy into bitterness.

Anthony Dexter had seen enough of the world to recognise cowardice when he saw it, even in himself. His books had taught him that the mind could hold but one thought at a time, and, persistently, he had displaced the unpleasant ones which constantly strove for the right of possession.

Hard work and new love and daily wearying of the body to the point of exhaustion had banished those phantoms of earlier years, save in his dreams. At night, the soul claims its own--its right to suffer for its secret sins, its shirking, its betrayals.

It is not pleasant for a man to be branded, in his own consciousness, a coward. Refusal to admit it by day does not change the hour of the night when life is at its lowest ebb, and, sleepless, man faces himself as he is.

The necklace slipped snakily over his hand--one of those white, firm hands which could guide the knife so well--and Anthony Dexter shuddered. He flung the box far from him into the shrubbery, went back into the house, and slammed the door.

He sat down at the table, but could not eat. The Past had come from its grave, veiled, like the ghost in the garden that he had seen yesterday.

It was not an hallucination, then. Only one person in the world could have laid those discoloured pearls at his door in the dead of night. The black figure in the garden, with the chiffon fluttering about its head, was Evelina Grey--or what was left of her.

"Why?" he questioned uneasily of himself. "Why?" He had repeatedly told himself that any other man, in his position, would do as he had done, yet it was as though some one had slipped a stiletto under his armour and found a vulnerable spot.

Before his mental vision hovered two women. One was a girl of twenty, laughing, exquisitely lovely. The other was a bent and broken woman in black, whose veil concealed the dreadful hideousness of her face.

"Pshaw!" grumbled Doctor Dexter, aloud. "I've overworked, that's all."

He determined to vanquish the spectre that had reared itself before him, not perceiving that Remorse incarnate, in the shape of Evelina, had come back to haunt him until his dying day.