VI. Pipes o' Pan
 

Sleet had fallen in the night, but at sunrise, the storm ceased. Miss Evelina had gone to sleep, lulled into a sense of security by the icy fingers tapping at her cobwebbed window pane. She awoke in a transfigured world. Every branch and twig was encased in crystal, upon which the sun was dazzling. Jewels, poised in midair, twinkled with the colours of the rainbow. On the tip of the cypress at the gate was a ruby, a sapphire gleamed from the rose-bush, and everywhere were diamonds and pearls.

Frosty vapour veiled the spaces between the trees and javelins of sunlight pierced it here and there. Beyond, there were glimpses of blue sky, and drops of water, falling from the trees, made a musical, cadence upon the earth beneath.

Miss Evelina opened her window still more. The air was peculiarly soft and sweet. It had the fragrance of opening buds and growing things and still had not lost the tang of the frost.

She drew a long breath of it and straightway was uplifted, though seemingly against her will. Spring was stirring at the heart of the world, sending new currents of sap into the veins of the trees, new aspirations into dead roots and fibres, fresh hopes of bloom into every sleeping rose. Life incarnate knocked at the wintry tomb; eager, unseen hands were rolling away the stone. The tide of the year was rising, soon to break into the wonder of green boughs and violets, shimmering wings and singing winds.

The cold hand that clutched her heart took a firmer hold. With acute self-pity, she perceived her isolation. Of all the world, she alone was set apart; branded, scarred, locked in a prison house that had no door. The one release was denied her until she could get away.

Poverty had driven her back. Circumstances outside her control had pushed her through the door she had thought never to enter again. Through all the five-and-twenty years, she had thought of the house with a shudder, peopling it with a thousand terrors, not knowing that there was no terror save her own fear.

Sorrow had put its chains upon her suddenly, at a time when she had not the strength to break the bond. At first she had struggled; then ceased. Since then, her faculties had been in suspense, as it were. She had forgotten laughter, veiled herself from joy, and walked hand in hand with the grisly phantom of her own conjuring.

Behind the shelter of her veil she had mutely prayed for peace--she dared not ask for more. And peace had never come. Her crowning humiliation would be to meet Anthony Dexter face to face--to know him, and to have him know her. Not knowing where he was, she had travelled far to avoid him. Now, seeking the last refuge, the one place on earth where he could not be, she found herself separated from him by less than a mile. More than that, she had gone to his house, as she had gone on the fateful day a quarter of a century ago. She had taken back the pearls, and had not died in doing it. Strangely enough, it had given her a vague relief.

Miss Evelina's mind had paused at twenty; she had not grown. The acute suffering of Youth was still upon her, a woman of forty-five. It was as though a clock had gone on ticking and the hands had never moved; the dial of her being was held at that dread hour, while her broken heart beat on.

She had not discovered that secret compensation which clings to the commonest affairs of life. One sees before him a mountain of toil, an apparently endless drudgery from which there is no escape. Having once begun it, an interest appears unexpectedly; new forces ally themselves with the fumbling hands. Misfortunes come, "not singly, but in battalions." After the first shock of realisation, one perceives through the darkness that the strength to bear them has come also, like some good angel.

A lover shudders at the thought of Death, yet knows that some day, on the road they walk together, the Grey Angel with the white poppies will surely take one of them by the hand. The road winds through shadows, past many strange and difficult places, and wrecks are strewn all along the way. They laugh at the storms that beat upon them, take no reck of bruised feet nor stumbling, for, behold, they are together, and in that one word lies all.

Sometimes, in the mist ahead, which, as they enter it, is seen to be wholly of tears, the road forks blindly, and there is nothing but night ahead for each. The Grey Angel with the unfathomable eyes approaches slowly, with no sound save the hushed murmur of wings. The dread white poppies are in his outstretched hand--the great, nodding white poppies which have come from the dank places and have never known the sun.

There is no possible denial. At first, one knows only that the faithful hand has grown cold, then, that it has unclasped. In the intolerable darkness, one fares forth alone on the other fork of the road, too stricken for tears.

At length there is a change. Memories troop from the shadow to whisper consolation, to say that Death himself is powerless against Love, when a heart is deep enough to hold a grave. The clouds lift, and through the night comes some stray gleam of dawn. No longer cold, the dear hand nestles once more into the one that held it so long. Not as an uncertain presence but as a loved reality, that other abides with him still.

Shut out forever from the possibility of estrangement, for there is always that drop of bitterness in the cup of Life and Love; eternally beyond the reach of misunderstanding or change, spared the pitfalls and disasters of the way ahead, blinded no longer by the mists of earth, but immortally and unchangeably his, that other fares with him, though unseen, upon the selfsame road.

From the broken night comes singing, for the white poppies have also brought balm. Step by step, his Sorrow has become his friend, and at the last, when the old feet are weary and the steep road has grown still more steep, the Grey Angel comes once more.

Past the mist of tears in which he once was shrouded, the face of the Grey Angel is seen to be wondrously kind. By his mysterious alchemy, he has crystallised the doubtful waters, which once were in the cup of Life and Love, into a jewel which has no flaw. He has kept the child forever a child, caught the maiden at the noon of her beauty to enshrine her thus for always in the heart that loved her most; made the true and loving comrade a comrade always, though on the highways of the vast Unknown.

It is seen now that the road has many windings and that, unconsciously, the wayfarer has turned back. Eagerly the trembling hands reach forward to take the white poppies, and the tired eyes close as though the silken petals had already fluttered downward on the lids, for, radiant past all believing, the Grey Angel still holds the Best Beloved by the hand, and the roads that long ago had forked in darkness, have come together, in more than mortal dawn, at the selfsame place.

Upon the beauty of the crystalline March morning, the memory of the Winter sorrow still lay. The bare, brown earth was not wholly hidden by the mantle of sleet and snow, yet there was some intangible Easter close at hand. Miss Evelina felt it, stricken though she was.

From a distant thicket came a robin's cheery call, a glimmer of blue wings flashed across the desolate garden, a south wind stirred the bending, icy branches to a tinkling music, and she knew that Spring had come to all but her.

Some indefinite impulse sent her outdoors. Closely veiled, she started off down the road, looking neither to the right nor the left. Miss Hitty saw her pass, but graciously forbore to call to her; Araminta looked up enquiringly from her sewing, but the question died on her lips.

Down through the village she went, across the tracks, and up to the river road. It had been a favourite walk of hers in her girlhood. Then she had gone with a quick, light step; now she went slowly, like one grown old.

Yet, all unconsciously, life was quickening in her pulses; the old magic of Spring was stirring in her, too. Dark and deep, the waters of the river rolled dreamily by, waiting for the impulse which should send the shallows singing to the sea, and stir the depths to a low, murmurous symphony.

Upon the left, as she walked, the road was bordered with elms and maples, stretching far back to the hills. The woods were full of unsuspected ravines and hollows, queer winding paths, great rocks, and tiny streams. The children had called it the enchanted forest, and played that a fairy prince and princess dwelt therein.

The childhood memories came back to Evelina with a pang. She stopped to wipe away the tears beneath her veil, to choke back a sob that tightened her throat. Suddenly, she felt a presentiment of oncoming evil, a rushing destiny that could not be swerved aside. Frightened, she turned to go back; then stopped again.

From above, on the upper part of the road, came the tread of horse's feet and the murmur of wheels. Her face paled to marble, her feet refused to move. The heart within her stood portentously still. With downcast eyes she stood there, petrified, motionless, like a woman carved in stone and clothed in black, veiled impenetrably in chiffon.

At a furious pace, Anthony Dexter dashed by, his face as white as her chiffon. She had known unerringly who was coming; and had felt the searing consciousness of his single glance before, with a muttered oath, he had lashed his horse to a gallop. This, then, was the last; there was nothing more.

The sound of the wheels died away in the distance. He had the pearls, he had seen her, he knew that she had come back. And still she lived.

Clear and high, like a bugle call, a strain of wild music came from the enchanted forest. Evelina threw back her head, gasping for breath; her sluggish feet stirred forward. Some forgotten valour of her spirit leaped to answer the summons, as a soldier, wounded unto death, turns to follow the singing trumpets that lead the charge.

Strangely soft and tender, the strain came again, less militant, less challenging. Swiftly upon its echo breathed another, hinting of peace. Shaken to her inmost soul by agony, she took heed of the music with the precise consciousness one gives to trifles at moments of unendurable stress. Blindly she turned into the forest.

"What was it?" she asked herself, repeatedly, wondering that she could even hear at a time like this. A bird? No, there was never a bird to sing like that. Almost it might be Pan himself with his syrinx, walking abroad on the first day of Spring.

The fancy appealed to her strongly, her swirling senses having become exquisitely acute. "Pipes o' Pan," she whispered, "I will find and follow you." To see the face of Pan meant death, according to the old Greek legend, but death was something of which she was not afraid.

Lyric, tremulous, softly appealing, the music came again. The bare boughs bent with their chiming crystal, and a twig fell at her feet, Sunlight starred the misty distance with pearl; shining branches swayed to meet her as she passed.

Farther in the wood, she turned, unconsciously in pursuit of that will-o'-the-wisp of sound. Here and there out of the silence, it came to startle her; to fill her with strange forebodings which were not wholly of pain.

Some subliminal self guided her, for heart and soul were merged in a quivering ecstasy of torture which throbbed and thundered and overflowed. "He saw me! He saw me! He saw me! He knew me! He knew me! He knew me!" In a triple rhythm the words vibrated back and forth unceasingly, as though upon a weaver's shuttle.

For nearly an hour she went blindly in search of the music, pausing now and then to listen intently, at times disheartened enough to turn back. She had a mad fancy that Death was calling her, from some far height, because Anthony Dexter had passed her on the road.

Now trumpet-like and commanding, now tender and appealing, the mystic music danced about her capriciously. Her feet grew weary, but the blood and the love of life had begun to move in her, too, when her whole nature was unspeakably stirred. She paused and leaned against a tree, to listen for the pipes o' Pan. But all was silent; the white stillness of the enchanted forest was like that of another world. With a sigh, she turned to the left, reflecting that a long walk straight through the woods would bring her out on the other road at a point near her own home.

Exquisitely faint and tender, the call rang out again. It was like some far flute of April blown in a March dawn. "Oh, pipes o' Pan," breathed Evelina, behind her shielding veil; "I pray you find me! I pray you, give me joy--or death!"

Swiftly the music answered, like a trumpet chanting from a height. Scarcely knowing what she did, she began to climb the hill. It was a more difficult way, but a nearer one, for just beyond the hill was her house.

Half-way up the ascent, the hill sloped back. There was a small level place where one might rest before going on to the summit. It was not more than a little nook, surrounded by pines. As she came to it, there was a frightened chirp, and a flock of birds fluttered up from her feet, leaving a generous supply of crumbs and grain spread upon the earth.

Against a great tree leaned a man, so brown and shaggy in his short coat that he seemed like part of the tree trunk. He was of medium height, wore high leather gaiters, and a grey felt hat with a long red quill thrust rakishly through the band. His face was round and rosy and the kindest eyes in the world twinkled at Evelina from beneath his bushy eyebrows. At his feet, quietly happy, was a bright-eyed, yellow mongrel with a stubby tail which wagged violently as Evelina approached. Slung over the man's shoulder by a cord was a silver-mounted flute.

From his elevated position, he must have seen her when she entered the wood, and had glimpses of her at intervals ever since. It was evident that he thoroughly enjoyed the musical hide-and-seek he had forced her to play while he was feeding the birds. His eyes laughed and there were mischievous dimples in his round, rosy cheeks.

"Oh," cried Evelina, in a tone of dull disappointment.

"I called you," said the Piper, gently, "and you came."

She turned on her heel and walked swiftly away. She went downhill with more haste than dignity, turned to her right, and struck out through the woods for the main road.

The Piper watched her until she was lost among the trees. The birds came back for their crumbs and grain and he stood patiently until his feathered pensioners had finished and flown away, chirping with satisfaction. Then he stooped to pat the yellow mongrel.

"Laddie," he said, "I'm thinking there's no more gypsying for us just now. To-morrow, we will not pack our shop upon our back and march on, as we had thought to do. Some one needs us here, eh, Laddie?"

The dog capered about his master's feet as if he understood and fully agreed. He was a pitiful sort, even for a mongrel. One of his legs had been broken and unskilfully set, so he did not run quite like other dogs.

"'T isn't a very good leg, Laddie," the Piper observed, "but I'm thinking 't is better than none. Anyway, I did my best with it, and now we'll push on a bit. It's our turn to follow, and we 're fain, Laddie, you and I, to see where she lives."

Bidding the dog stay at heel, the Piper followed Miss Evelina's track. By dint of rapid walking, he reached the main road shortly after she did. Keeping a respectful distance, and walking at the side of the road, he watched her as she went home. From the safe shelter of a clump of alders just below Miss Mehitable's he saw the veiled figure enter the broken gate.

"'T is the old house, Laddie," he said to the dog; "the very one we were thinking of taking ourselves. Come on, now; we'll be going. Down, sir! Home!"