VII. "The Honour of the Spoken Word"
 

Anthony Dexter sat in his library, alone, as usual. Under the lamp, Ralph's letters were spread out before him, but he was not reading. Indeed, he knew every line of them by heart, but he could not keep his mind upon the letters.

Between his eyes and the written pages there came persistently a veiled figure, clothed shabbily in sombre black. Continually he fancied the horror the veil concealed; continually, out of the past, his cowardice and his shirking arose to confront him.

A photograph of his wife, who had died soon after Ralph was born, had been taken from the drawer. "A pretty, sweet woman," he mused. "A good wife and a good mother." He told himself again that he had loved her--that he loved her still.

Yet behind his thought was sure knowledge. The woman who had entered the secret fastnesses of his soul, and before whom he had trembled, was the one whom he had seen in the dead garden, frail as a ghost, and again on the road that morning.

Dimly, and now for the first time, there came to his perception that recognition of his mate which each man carries in his secret heart when he has found his mate at all. Past the anguish that lay between them like a two-edged sword, and through the mists of the estranging years, Evelina had come back to claim her own.

He saw that they were bound together, scarred in body or scarred in soul; crippled, mutilated, or maimed though either or both might be, the one significant fact was not altered.

He knew now that his wife and the mother of his child had stood outside, as all women but the one must ever stand. Nor did he guess that she had known it from the first and that heart-hunger had hastened her death.

Aside from a very deep-seated gratitude to her for his son, Anthony Dexter cherished no emotion for the sake of his dead wife. She had come and gone across his existence as a butterfly crosses a field, touching lightly here and there, but lingering not at all. Except for Ralph, it was as though she had never been, so little did she now exist for him.

Yet Evelina was vital, alive, and out of the horror she had come back. To him? He did not believe that she had come definitely to seek him--he knew her pride too well for that. His mind strove to grasp the reason of her coming, but it eluded him; evaded him at every point. She had not forgotten; if she had, she would not have given back that sinuous necklace of discoloured pearls.

By the way, what had he done with the necklace? He remembered now. He had thrown it far into the shrubbery, for the pearls were dead and the love was dead.

"First from the depths of the sea and then from the depths of my love." The mocking words, written in faded ink on the yellowed slip of paper, danced impishly across the pages of Ralph's letters. He had a curious fancy that if his love had been deep enough the pearls would not have turned black.

Impatiently, he rose from the table and paced back and forth restlessly across the library. "I'm a fool," he growled; "a doddering old fool. No, that's not it--I've worked too hard."

Valiantly he strove to dispel the phantoms that clustered about him. A light step behind him chimed in with his as he walked and he feared to look around, not knowing it was but the echo of his own.

He went to a desk in the corner of the room and opened a secret drawer that had not been opened for a long time. He took out a photograph, wrapped in yellowed tissue paper, and went back to the table. He unwrapped it, his blunt white fingers trembling ever so slightly, and sat down.

A face of surpassing loveliness looked back at him. It was Evelina, at the noon of her girlish beauty, her face alight with love. Anthony Dexter looked long at the perfect features, the warm, sweet, tempting mouth, the great, trusting eyes, and the brown hair that waved so softly back from her face; the all-pervading and abiding womanliness. There was strength as well as beauty; tenderness, courage, charm.

"Mate for a man," said Dexter, aloud. For such women as Evelina, the knights of old did battle, and men of other centuries fought with their own temptations and weaknesses. It was such as she who led men to the heights, and pointed them to heights yet farther on.

Insensibly, he compared Ralph's mother with Evelina. The two women stood as far apart as a little, meaningless song stands from a great symphony. One would fire a man with high ambition, exalt him with noble striving--ah, but had she? Was it Evelina's fault that Anthony Dexter was a coward and a shirk? Cravenly, he began to blame the woman, to lay the burden of his own shortcomings at Evelina's door.

Yet still the face stirred him. There was life in those walled fastnesses of his nature which long ago he had denied. Self-knowledge at last confronted him, and would not be put away.

"And so, Evelina," he said aloud, "you have come back. And what do you want? What can I do for you?"

The bell rang sharply, as if answering his question. He started from his chair, having heard no approaching footsteps. He covered the photograph of Evelina with Ralph's letters, but the sweet face of the boy's mother still looked out at him from its gilt frame.

The old housekeeper went to the door with the utmost leisure. It seemed to him an eternity before the door was opened. He stood there, waiting, summoning his faculties of calmness and his powers of control, to meet Evelina--to have out, at last, all the shame of the years.

But it was not Evelina. The Reverend Austin Thorpe was wiping his feet carefully upon the door-mat, and asking in deep, vibrant tones: "Is the Doctor in?"

Anthony Dexter could have cried out from relief. When the white-haired old man came in, floundering helplessly among the furniture, as a near-sighted person does, he greeted him with a cordiality that warmed his heart.

"I am glad," said the minister, "to find you in. Sometimes I am not so fortunate. I came late, for that reason."

"I've been busy," returned the Doctor. "Sit down."

The minister sank into an easy chair and leaned toward the light. "I wish I could have a lamp like this in my room," he remarked. "It gives a good light."

"You can have this one," returned Dexter, with an hysterical laugh,

"I was not begging," said Mr. Thorpe, with dignity. "Miss Mehitable's lamps are all small. Some of them give no more light than a candle."

"'How far that little candle throws its beams,'" quoted Dexter. "'So shines a good deed in a naughty world.'"

There was a long interval of silence. Sometimes Thorpe and Doctor Dexter would sit for an entire evening with less than a dozen words spoken on either side, yet feeling the comfort of human companionship.

"I was thinking," said, Thorpe, finally, "of the supreme isolation of the human soul. You and I sit here, talking or not, as the mood strikes us, and yet, what does speech matter? You know no more of me than I choose to give you, nor I of you."

"No," responded Dexter, "that is quite true." He did not realise what Thorpe had just said, but he felt that it was safe to agree.

"One grows morbid in thinking of it," pursued Thorpe, screening his blue eyes from the light with his hand. "We are like a vast plain of mountain peaks. Some of us have our heads in the clouds always, up among the eternal snows. Thunders boom about us, lightning rives us, storm and sleet beat upon us. There is a rumbling on some distant peak and we know that it rains there, too. That is all we ever know. We are not quite sure when our neighbours are happy or when they are troubled; when there is sun and when there is storm. The secret forces in the interior of the mountain work on unceasingly. The distance hides it all. We never get near enough to another peak to see the scars upon its surface, to know of the dead timber and the dried streams, the marks of avalanches and glacial drift, the precipices and pitfalls, the barren wastes. In blue, shimmering distance, the peaks are veiled and all seem fair but our own."

At the word "veiled," Dexter shuddered. "Very pretty," he said, with a forced laugh which sounded flat. "Why don't you put it into a sermon?"

Thorpe's face became troubled. "My sermons do not please," he answered, with touching simplicity. "They say there is not enough of hell."

"I'm satisfied," commented the Doctor, in a grating voice. "I think there's plenty of hell."

"You never come to church," remarked the minister, not seeing the point.

"There's hell enough outside--for any reasonable mortal," returned Dexter. He was keyed to a high pitch. He felt that, at any instant, something might snap and leave him inert.

Thorpe sighed. His wrinkled old hand strayed out across the papers and turned the face of Ralph's mother toward him. He studied it closely, not having seen it before. Then he looked up at the Doctor, whose face was again like a mask.

"Your--?" A lift of the eyebrows finished the question.

Dexter nodded, with assumed carelessness. There was another long pause.

"Sometimes I envy you," said Thorpe, laying the picture down carefully, "you have had so much of life and joy. I think it is better for you to have had her and lost her than not to have had her at all," he continued, unconsciously paraphrasing. "Even in your loneliness, you have the comfort of memory, and your boy--I have wondered what a son might mean to me, now, in my old age. Dead though she is, you know she still loves you; that somewhere she is waiting to take your hand in hers."

"Don't!" cried Dexter. The strain was well-nigh insupportable.

"Forgive me, my friend," returned Thorpe, quickly. "I--" Then he paused. "As I was saying," he went on, after a little, "I have often envied you."

"Don't," said Dexter, again. "As you were also saying, distance hides the peak and you do not see the scars."

Thorpe's eyes sought the picture of Dexter's wife with an evident tenderness, mingled with yearning. "I often think," he sighed, "that in Heaven we may have a chance to pay our debt to woman. Through woman's agony we come into the world, by woman's care we are nourished, by woman's wisdom we are taught, by woman's love we are sheltered, and, at the last, it is a woman who closes our eyes. At every crisis of a man's life, a woman is always waiting, to help him if she may, and I have seen that at any crisis in a woman's life, we are apt to draw back and shirk. She helps us bear our difficulties; she faces hers alone."

Dexter turned uneasily in his chair. His face was inscrutable. The silent moment cried out for speech--for anything to relieve the tension. Through Ralph's letters Evelina's eyes seemed to be upon him, beseeching him to speak.

"I knew a man,", said Anthony Dexter, hoarsely, "who unintentionally contracted quite an unusual debt to a woman."

"Yes?" returned, Thorpe, inquiringly. He was interested.

"He was a friend of mine," the Doctor continued, with difficulty, "or rather a classmate. I knew him best at college and afterward--only slightly."

"The debt," Thorpe reminded him, after a pause. "You were speaking, of his debt to a woman."

Dexter turned his face away from Thorpe and from the accusing eyes beneath Ralph's letters. "She was a very beautiful girl," he went on, carefully choosing his words, "and they loved each other as people love but once. My--my friend was much absorbed in chemistry and had a fondness for original experiment. She--the girl, you know--used to study with him. He was teaching her and she often helped him in the laboratory.

"They were to be married," continued Dexter. "The day before they were to be married, he went to her house and invited her to come to the laboratory to see an experiment which he was trying for the first time and which promised to be unusually interesting. I need not explain the experiment--you would not understand.

"On the way to the laboratory, they were talking, as lovers will. She asked him if he loved her because she was herself; because, of all the women in the world, she was the one God meant for him, or if he loved her because he thought her beautiful.

"He said that he loved her because she was herself, and, most of all, because she was his. 'Then,' she asked, timidly, 'when I am old and all the beauty has gone, you will love me still? It will be the same, even when I am no longer lovely?'

"He answered her as any man would, never dreaming how soon he was to be tested.

"In the laboratory, they were quite alone. He began the experiment, explaining as he went, and she watched it as eagerly as he. He turned away for a moment, to get another chemical. As he leaned over the retort to put it in, he heard it seethe. With all her strength, she pushed him away instantly. There was an explosion which shook the walls of the laboratory, a quantity of deadly gas was released, and, in the fumes, they both fainted.

"When he came to his senses, he learned that she had been terribly burned, and had been taken on the train to the hospital. He was the one physician in the place and it was the only thing to be done.

"As soon as he could, he went to the hospital. They told him there that her life would be saved and they hoped for her eyesight, but that she would be permanently and horribly disfigured. All of her features were destroyed, they said--she would be only a pitiful wreck of a woman."

Thorpe was silent. His blue eyes were dim with pity. Dexter rose and stood in front of him. "Do you understand?" he asked, in a voice that was almost unrecognisable. "His face was close to the retort when she pushed him away. She saved his life and he went away--he never saw her again. He left her without so much as a word."

"He went away?" asked the minister, incredulously. "Went away and left her when she had so much to bear? Deserted her when she needed him to help her bear it, and when she had saved him from death, or worse?"

"You would not believe it possible?" queried Dexter, endeavouring to make his voice even.

"Of a cur, yes," said the minister, his voice trembling with indignation, "but of a man, no."

Anthony Dexter shrank back within himself. He was breathing heavily, but his companion did not notice.

"It was long ago," the Doctor continued, when he had partially regained his composure. He dared not tell Thorpe that the man had married in the meantime, lest he should guess too much. "The woman still lives, and my--friend lives also. He has never felt right about it. What should he do?"

"The honour of the spoken word still holds him," said Thorpe, evenly. "As I understand, he asked her to marry him and she consented. He was never released from his promise--did not even ask for it. He slunk away like a cur. In the sight of God he is bound to her by his own word still. He should go to her and either fulfil his promise or ask for release. The tardy fulfilment of his promise would be the only atonement he could make."

The midnight train came in and stopped, but neither heard it.

"It would be very difficult," Thorpe was saying, "to retain any shred of respect for a man like that. It shows your broad charity when you call him 'friend.' I myself have not so much grace."

Anthony Dexter's breath came painfully. He tightened his fingers on the arm of the chair and said nothing.

"It is a peculiar coincidence," mused Thorpe, He was thinking aloud now. "In the old house just beyond Miss Mehitable's, farther up, you know, a woman has just come to live who seems to have passed through something like that. It would be strange, would it not, if she were the one whom your--friend--had wronged?"

"Very," answered Dexter, in a voice the other scarcely heard.

"Perhaps, in this way, we may bring them together again. If the woman is here, and you can find your friend, we may help him to wash the stain of cowardice off his soul. Sometimes," cried Thorpe passionately, "I think there is no sin but shirking. I can excuse a liar, I can pardon a thief, I can pity a murderer, but a shirk--no!" His voice broke and his wrinkled old hands trembled.

"My--my friend," lied Anthony Dexter, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead, "lives abroad. I have no way of finding him."

"It is a pity," returned Thorpe. "Think of a man meeting his God like that! It tempts one to believe in a veritable hell!"

"I think there is a veritable hell," said Dexter, with a laugh which was not good to hear. "I think, by this time, my friend must believe in it as well. I remember that he did not, before the--it, I mean, happened."

Far from feeling relief, Anthony Dexter was scourged anew. A thousand demons leaped from the silence to mock him; the earth rolled beneath his feet. The impulse of confession was strong upon him, even in the face of Thorpe's scorn. He wondered why only one church saw the need of the confessional, why he could not go, even to Thorpe, and share the burden that oppressed his guilty soul.

The silence was not to be borne. The walls of the room swayed back and forth, as though they were of fabric and stirred by all the winds of hell. The floor undulated; his chair sank dizzily beneath him.

Dexter struggled to his feet, clutching convulsively at the table. His lips were parched and his tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. "Thorpe," he said, in a hoarse whisper, "I----"

The minister raised his hand. "Listen! I thought I heard----"

A whistle sounded outside, the gate clanged shut. A quick, light step ran up the walk, the door opened noisily, and a man rushed in. He seemed to bring into that hopeless place all the freshness of immortal Youth.

Blinded, Dexter moved forward, his hands outstretched to meet that eager clasp.

"Father! Father!" cried Ralph, joyously; "I've come home!"