VIII. Piper Tom

"Laddie," said the Piper to the yellow mongrel, "we'll be having breakfast now."

The dog answered with a joyous yelp. "You talk too much," observed his master, in affectionate reproof; "'t is fitting that small yellow dogs should be seen and not heard."

It was scarcely sunrise, but the Piper's day began--and ended--early. He had a roaring fire in the tiny stove which warmed his shop, and the tea-kettle hummed cheerily. All about him was the atmosphere of immaculate neatness. It was not merely the lack of dust and dirt, but a positive cleanliness.

His beardless face was youthful, but the Piper's hair was tinged with grey at the temples. One judged him to be well past forty, yet fully to have retained his youth. His round, rosy mouth was puckered in a whistle as he moved about the shop and spread the tiny table with a clean cloth.

Ranged about him in orderly rows was his merchandise. Tom Barnaby never bothered with fixtures and showcases. Chairs, drygoods boxes, rough shelves of his own making, and a few baskets sufficed him.

In the waterproof pedler's pack which he carried on his back when his shop was in transit, he had only the smaller articles which women continually need. Calico, mosquito netting, buttons, needles, thread, tape, ribbons, stationery, hooks and eyes, elastic, shoe laces, sewing silk, darning cotton, pins, skirt binding, and a few small frivolities in the way of neckwear, veils, and belts--these formed Piper Tom's stock in trade. By dint of close packing, he wedged an astonishing number of things into a small space, and was not too heavily laden when, with his dog and his flute, he set forth upon the highway to establish his shop in the next place that seemed promising.

"All unknowing, Laddie," he said to the dog, as he sat down to his simple breakfast, "we've come into competition with a woman who keeps a shop like ours, which we didn't mean to do. It's for this that we were making a new set of price tags all day of yesterday, which happened to be the Sabbath. It wouldn't be becoming of us to charge less than she and take her trade away from her, so we've started out on an even basis.

"Poor lady," laughed the Piper, "she was not willing for us to know her prices, thinking we were going to sell cheaper than she. 'T is a hard world for women, Laddie. I'm thinking 'tis no wonder they grow suspicious at times."

The dog sat patiently till Piper Tom finished his breakfast, well knowing that a generous share would be given him outside. While the dog ate, his master put the shop into the most perfect order, removing every particle of dust, and whistling meanwhile.

When the weather permitted, the shop was often left to keep itself, the door being hospitably propped open with a brick, while the dog and his master went gypsying. With a ragged, well-worn book in one pocket, a parcel of bread and cheese in another, and his flute slung over his shoulder, the Piper was prepared to spend the day abroad. He carried, too, a bone for the dog, well wrapped in newspaper, and an old silver cup to drink from.

Having finished his breakfast, the dog scampered about eagerly, indicating, by many leaps and barks, that it was time to travel, but the Piper raised his hand.

"Not to-day, Laddie," he said. "If we travel to-day, we'll not be going far. Have you forgotten that 't was only day before yesterday we found our work? Come here."

The dog seated himself before the Piper, his stubby tail wagging impatiently.

"She's a poor soul, Laddie," sighed the Piper, at length. "I'm thinking she's seen Sorrow face to face and has never had the courage to turn away. She was walking in the woods, trying to find the strange music, and was disappointed when she saw 't was only us. We must make her glad 't was us."

After a long time, the Piper spoke again, with a lingering tenderness. "She must be very beautiful, I'm thinking, Laddie; else she would not hide her face. Very beautiful and very sad."

When the sun was high, Piper Tom climbed the hill, followed by his faithful dog. On his shoulder he bore a scythe and under the other arm was a spade. He entered Miss Evelina's gate without ceremony and made a wry face as he looked about him. He scarcely knew where to begin.

The sound of the wide, even strokes roused Miss Evelina from her lethargy, and she went to the window, veiled. At first she was frightened when she saw the queer man whom she had met in the woods hard at work in her garden.

The red feather in his hat bobbed cheerfully up and down, the little yellow dog ran about busily, and the Piper was whistling lustily an old, half-forgotten tune.

She watched him for some time, then a new thought frightened her again. She had no money with which to pay him for clearing out her garden, and he would undoubtedly expect payment. She must go out and tell him not to work any more; that she did not wish to have the weeds removed.

Cringing before the necessity, she went out. The Piper did not see her until she was very near him, then, startled in his turn, he said, "Oh!" and took off his hat.

"Good-morning, madam," he went on, making a low bow. She noted that the tip of his red feather brushed the ground. "What can I do for you, more than I'm doing now?"

"It is about that," stammered Evelina, "that I came. You must not work in my garden."

"Surely," said the Piper, "you don't mean that! Would you have it all weeds? And 't is hard work for such as you."

"I--I--" answered Miss Evelina, almost in a whisper; "I have no money."

The Piper laughed heartily and put on his hat again. "Neither have I," he said, between bursts of seemingly uncalled-for merriment, "and probably I'm the only man in these parts who's not looking for it. Did you think I'd ask for pay for working in the garden?"

His tone made her feel that she had misjudged him and she did not know what to say in reply.

"Laddie and I have no garden of our own," he explained, "and so we're digging in yours. The place wants cleaning, for 't is a long time since any one cared enough for it to dig. I was passing, and I saw a place I thought I could make more pleasant. Have I your leave to try?"

"Why--why, yes," returned Miss Evelina, slowly. "If you'd like to, I don't mind."

He dismissed her airily, with a wave of his hand, and she went back into the house, never once turning her head.

"She's our work, Laddie," said the Piper, "and I'm thinking we've begun in the right way. All the old sadness is piled up in the garden, and I'm thinking there's weeds in her life, too, that it's our business to take out. At any rate, we'll begin here and do this first. One step at a time, Laddie--one step at a time. That's all we have to take, fortunately. When we can't see ahead, it's because we can't look around a corner."

All that day from behind her cobwebbed windows, Miss Evelina watched the Piper and his dog. Weeds and thistles fell like magic before his strong, sure strokes. He carried out armful after armful of rubbish and made a small-sized mountain in the road, confining it with stray boards and broken branches, as it was too wet to be burned.

Wherever she went, in the empty house, she heard that cheery, persistent whistle. As usual, Miss Hitty left a tray on her doorstep, laden with warm, wholesome food. Since that first day, she had made no attempt to see Miss Evelina. She brought her tray, rapped, and went away quietly, exchanging it for another when it was time for the next meal.

Meanwhile, Miss Evelina's starved body was responding, slowly but surely, to the simple, well-cooked food. Hitherto, she had not cared to eat and scarcely knew what she was eating. Now she had learned to discriminate between hot rolls and baking-powder biscuit, between thick soups and thin broths, custards and jellies.

Miss Evelina had wound one of the clocks, setting it by the midnight train, and loosening the machinery by a few drops of oil which she had found in an old bottle, securely corked. At eight, at one, and at six, Miss Hitty's tray was left at her back door--there had not been the variation of a minute since the first day. Preoccupied though she was, Evelina was not insensible of the kindness, nor of the fact that she was stronger, physically, than she had been for years.

And now in the desolate garden, there was visible evidence of more kindness. Perhaps the world was not wholly a place of grief and tears. Out there among the weeds a man laboured cheerfully--a man of whom she had no knowledge and upon whom she had no claim.

He sang and whistled as he strove mightily with the weeds. Now and then, he sharpened his scythe with his whetstone and attacked the dense undergrowth with yet more vigour. The little yellow mongrel capered joyfully and unceasingly, affecting to hide amidst the mass of rubbish, scrambling out with sharp, eager barks when his master playfully buried him, and retreating hastily before the oncoming scythe.

Miss Evelina could not hear, but she knew that the man was talking to the dog in the pauses of his whistling. She knew also that the dog liked it, even if he did not understand. She observed that the dog was not beautiful--could not be called so by any stretch of the imagination--and yet the man talked to him, made a friend of him, loved him.

At noon, the Piper laid down his scythe, clambered up on the crumbling stone wall, and ate his bread and cheese, while the dog nibbled at his bone. From behind a shutter in an upper room, Miss Evelina noted that the dog also had bread and cheese, sharing equally with his master.

The Piper went to the well, near the kitchen door, and drank copiously of the cool, clear water from his silver cup. Then he went back to work again.

Out in the road, the rubbish accumulated. When the Piper stood behind it. Miss Evelina could barely see the tip of the red feather that bobbed rakishly in his hat. Once he disappeared, leaving the dog to keep a reluctant guard over the spade and scythe. When he came back, he had a rake and a large basket, which made the collection of rubbish easier.

Safe in her house, Miss Evelina watched him idly. Her thought was taken from herself for the first time in all the five-and-twenty years. She contemplated anew the willing service of Miss Mehitable, who asked nothing of her except the privilege of leaving daily sustenance at her barred and forbidding door. "Truly," said Miss Evelina to herself, "it is a strange world."

The personality of the Piper affected her in a way she could not analyse. He did not attract her, neither was he wholly repellent. She did not feel friendly toward him, yet she could not turn wholly aside. There had been something strangely alluring in his music, which haunted her even now, though she resented his making game of her and leading her through the woods as he had.

Over and above and beyond all, she remembered the encounter upon the road, always with a keen, remorseless pain which cut at her heart like a knife. Miss Evelina thought she was familiar with knives, but this one hurt in a new way and cut, seemingly, at a place which had not been touched before.

Since the "white night" which had turned her hair to lustreless snow, nothing had hurt her so much. Her coming to the empty house, driven, as she was, by poverty--entering alone into a tomb of memories and dead happiness,--had not stabbed so deeply or so surely. She saw herself first on one peak and then on another, a valley of humiliation and suffering between which it had taken twenty-five years to cross. From the greatest hurt at the beginning to the greatest hurt--at the end? Miss Evelina started from her chair, her hands upon her leaping heart. The end? Ah, dear God, no! There was no end to grief like hers!

Insistently, through her memory, sounded the pipes o' Pan--the wild, sweet, tremulous strain which had led her away from the road where she had been splashed with the mud from Anthony Dexter's carriage wheels. The man with the red feather in his hat had called her, and she had come. Now he was digging in her garden, making the desolate place clean, if not cheerful.

Conscious of an unfamiliar detachment, Miss Evelina settled herself to think. The first hurt and the long pain which followed it, the blurred agony of remembrance when she had come back to the empty house, then the sharp, clean-cut stroke when she stood on the road, her eyes downcast, and heard the wheels rush by, then clear and challenging, the pipes o' Pan.

"'There is a divinity that shapes our ends,'" she thought, "'rough-hew them how we may.'" Where had she heard that before? She remembered, now--it was a favourite quotation of Anthony Dexter's.

Her lip curled scornfully. Was she never to be free from Anthony Dexter? Was she always to be confronted with his cowardice, his shirking, his spoken and written thoughts? Was she always to see his face as she had seen it last, his great love for her shining in his eyes for all the world to read? Was she to see forever his pearl necklace, discoloured, snaky, and cold, as meaningless as the yellow slip of paper that had come with it?

Where was the divinity that had shaped her course hither? Why had she been driven back to the place of her crucifixion, to stand veiled in the road while he drove by and splashed her with mud from his wheels?

Out in the garden, the Piper still strove with the weeds. He had the place nearly half cleared now. The space on the other side of the house was, as yet, untouched, and the trees and shrubbery all needed trimming. The wall was broken in places, earth had drifted upon it, and grass and weeds had taken root in the crevices.

Upon one side of the house, nearly all of the bare earth had been raked clean. He was on the western slope, now, where the splendid poppies had once grown. Pausing in his whistling, the Piper stooped and picked up some small object. Miss Evelina cowered behind her shielding shutters, for she guessed that he had found the empty vial which had contained laudanum.

The Piper sniffed twice at the bottle. His scent was as keen as a hunting dog's. Then he glanced quickly toward the house where Miss Evelina, unveiled, shrank back into the farthest corner of an upper room.

He walked to the gate, no longer whistling, and slowly, thoughtfully, buried it deep in the rubbish. Could Miss Evelina have seen his face, she would have marvelled at the tenderness which transfigured it and wondered at the mist that veiled his eyes.

He stood at the gate for a long time, leaning on his scythe, his back to the house. In sympathy with his master's mood, the dog was quiet, and merely nosed about among the rubbish. By a flash of intuition, Miss Evelina knew that the finding of the bottle had made clear to the Piper much that he had not known before.

She felt herself an open book before those kind, keen eyes, which neither sought nor avoided her veiled face. All the sorrow and the secret suffering would be his, if he chose to read it. Miss Evelina knew that she must keep away.

The sun set without splendour. Still the Piper stood there, leaning on his scythe, thinking. All the rubbish in the garden was old, except the empty laudanum bottle. The label was still legible, and also the warning word, "Poison." She had put it there herself--he had no doubt of that.

The dog whined and licked his master's hand, as though to say it was time to go home. At length the Piper roused himself and gathered up his tools. He carried them to a shed at the back of the house, and Miss Evelina, watching, knew that he was coming back to finish his self-appointed task.

"Yes," said the Piper, "we'll be going. 'T is not needful to bark."

He went down-hill slowly, the little dog trotting beside him and occasionally licking his hand. They went into the shop, the door of which was still propped open. The Piper built a fire, removed his coat and hat, took off his leggings, cleaned his boots, and washed his hands.

Then, unmindful of the fact that it was supper-time, he sat down. The dog sat down, too, pressing hard against him. The Piper took the dog's head between his hands and looked long into the loving, eager eyes.

"She will be very beautiful, Laddie," he sighed, at length, "very beautiful and very brave."