The little house was waiting, as it had waited for many years. Grey and weather-worn, it leaned toward the sheltering hillside as though to gather from the kindly earth some support and comfort for old age. Five-and-twenty Winters had broken its spirit, five-and-twenty Springs had not brought back the heart of it, that had once gone out, with dancing feet and singing, and had returned no more.
For a quarter of a century, the garden had lain desolate. Summers came and went, but only a few straggling blooms made their way above the mass of weeds. In early Autumn, thistles and milkweed took possession of the place, the mournful purple of their flowering hiding the garden beneath trappings of woe. And at night, when the Autumn moon shone dimly, frail ghosts of dead flowers were set free from the thistles and milkweed. The wind of Indian Summer, itself a ghost, convoyed them about the garden, but they never went beyond it. Each year the panoply of purple spread farther, more surely hiding the brave blooms beneath.
Far down the path, beside the broken gate, a majestic cypress cast portentous gloom. Across from it, and quite hiding the ruin of the gate, was a rose-bush, which, every June, put forth one perfect white rose. Love had come through the gate and Love had gone out again, but this one flower was left behind.
Brambles grew about the doorstep, and the hinges of the door were deep in rust. No friendly light gleamed at night from the lattice, a beacon to the wayfarer or a message of cheer to the disheartened, since the little house was alone. The secret spinners had hung a drapery of cobwebs before the desolate windows, as though to veil the loneliness from passers-by. No fire warmed the solitary hearth, no gay and careless laughter betrayed the sleeping echoes into answer. Within the house were only dreams, which never had come true.
A bit of sewing yet lay upon the marble-topped table in the sitting-room, and an embroidery frame, holding still a square of fine linen, had fallen from a chair. An open book was propped against the back of the chair, and a low rocker, facing it, was swerved sharply aside. The evidence of daily occupation, suddenly interrupted, was all there--a quiet content, overlaid by a dumb, creeping paralysis.
The March wind blew fiercely through the night and the little house leaned yet more toward the sheltering hill. Afar, in the village, a train rumbled into the station; the midnight train from the city by which the people of Rushton regulated their watches and clocks. Strangely enough, it stopped, and more than one good man, turning uneasily upon his pillow, wondered if the world might have come to its end.
Half an hour afterward, a lone figure ascended the steep road which led to the house. A woman, fearless of the night, because Life had already done its worst to her, stumbled up the stony, overgrown way. The moon shone fitfully among the flying clouds, and she guided herself by its uncertain gleams, pausing now and then, in complete darkness, to wait for more light.
Ghost-like, a long white chiffon veil trailed behind her, too securely fastened to her hat to be blown away. Even in the night, she watched furtively and listened for approaching footsteps, one hand holding the end of her veil in such a way that she might quickly hide her face.
Outside the gate she paused, irresolute. At the last moment, it seemed as if she could never enter the house again. A light snow had fallen upon the dead garden, covering its scarred face with white. Miss Evelina noted quickly that her garden, too, was hidden as by chiffon.
A gust of wind made her shiver--or was it the veiled garden? Nerving herself to her necessity, she took up her satchel and went up the path as one might walk, with bared feet, up a ladder of swords. Each step that took her nearer the house hurt her the more, but she was not of those who cry out when hurt. She set her lips more firmly together and continued upon her self-appointed way.
When she reached the house, she already had the key in her uncertain fingers. The rusty lock yielded at length and the door opened noisily. Her heart surged painfully as she entered the musty darkness. It was so that Miss Evelina came home, after five-and-twenty years.
The thousand noises of an empty house greeted her discordantly. A rattling window was answered by a creaking stair, a rafter groaned dismally, and the scurrying feet of mice pattered across a distant floor.
Fumbling in her satchel, Miss Evelina drew out a candle and a box of matches. Presently there was light in the little house--a faint glimmering light, which flickered, when the wind shook the walls, and twinkled again bravely when it ceased.
She took off her wraps, and, through force of habit, pinned the multitudinous folds of her veil to her hair, forgetting that at midnight, and in her own house, there were none to see her face.
Then she made a fire, for the body must be warmed, though the heart is dead, and the soul stricken dumb. She had brought with her a box containing a small canister of tea, and she soon had ready a cup of it, so strong that it was bitter.
With her feet upon the hearth and the single candle flickering upon the mantel shelf, she sat in the lonely house and sipped her tea. Her well-worn black gown clung closely to her figure, and the white chiffon veil, thrown back, did not wholly hide her abundant hair. The horror of one night had whitened Miss Evelina's brown hair at twenty, for the sorrows of Youth are unmercifully keen.
"I have come back," she thought. "I have come back through that door. I went out of it, laughing, at twenty. At forty-five, I have come back, heart-broken, and I have lived.
"Why did I not die?" she questioned, for the thousandth time. "If there had been a God in Heaven, surely I must have died."
The flames leaped merrily in the fireplace and the discordant noises of the house resolved themselves into vague harmony. A cricket, safely ensconced for the Winter in a crevice of the hearth, awoke in the unaccustomed warmth, piping a shrill and cheery welcome, but Miss Evelina sat abstractedly, staring into the fire.
After all, there had never been anything but happiness in the house--the misery had been outside. Peace and quiet content had dwelt there securely, but the memory of it brought no balm now.
As though it were yesterday, the black walnut chair, covered with haircloth, stood primly against the wall. Miss Evelina had always hated the chair, and here, after twenty-five years, it confronted her again. She mused, ironically, upon the permanence of things usually considered transient and temporary. Her mother's sewing was still upon the marble-topped table, but the hands that held it were long since mingled with the dust. Her own embroidery had apparently but just fallen from the chair, and the dream that had led to its fashioning--was only a dream, from which she awoke to enduring agony. With swift hatred, she turned her back upon the embroidery frame, and hid her face in her hands.
Time, as time, had ceased to exist for her. She suffered until suffering brought its own far anodyne--the inability to sustain it further,--then she slept, from sheer weariness. Before dawn, usually, she awoke, sufficiently rested to suffer again. When she felt faint, she ate, scarcely knowing what she ate, for food was as dust and ashes in her mouth.
In the bag that hung from her belt was a vial of laudanum, renewed from time to time as she feared its strength was waning. She had been taught that it was wicked to take one's own life, and that God was always kind. Not having experienced the kindness, she began to doubt the existence of God, and was immediately face to face with the idea that it could not be wrong to die if one was too miserable to live. Her mind revolved perpetually in this circle and came continually back to a compromise. She would live one more day, and then she would free herself. There was always a to-morrow when she should be free, but it never came.
The fire died down and the candle had but a few minutes more to burn. It was the hour of the night when life is at its lowest--when souls pass out into the great Beyond. Miss Evelina took the vial from her reticule and uncorked it. The bitter, pungent odour came as sweet incense to her nostrils. No one knew she had come. No one would ever enter her door again. She might die peacefully in her own house, and no one would know until the walls crumbled to dust--perhaps not even then. And Miss Evelina had a horror of a grave.
She drew a long breath of the bitterness. The silken leaves of the poppies--flowers of sleep--had been crushed into this. The lees must be drained from the Cup of Life before the Cup could be set aside. Every one came to this, sooner or later. Why not choose? Why not drain the Cup now? When it had all been bitter, why hesitate to drink the lees?
The monstrous and incredible passion of the race was slowly creeping upon her. Her eyes gleamed and her cheeks burned. The hunger for death at her own hands and on her own terms possessed her frail body to the full. "If there had been a God in Heaven," she said, aloud, "surely I must have died!"
The words startled her and her hand shook so that some of the laudanum was spilled. It was long since she had heard her own voice in more than a monosyllabic answer to some necessary question. Inscrutably veiled in many folds of chiffon, she held herself apart from the world, and the world, carelessly kind, had left her wholly to herself.
Slowly, she put the cork tightly into the vial and slipped it back into her bag. "Tomorrow," she sighed; "to-morrow I shall set myself free."
The fire flickered and without warning the candle went out, in a gust of wind which shook the house to its foundations. Stray currents of air had come through the crevices of the rattling windows and kept up an imperfect ventilation. She took another candle from her satchel, put it into a candlestick of blackened brass, and slowly ascended the stairs.
She went to her own room, though her feet failed her at the threshold and she sank helplessly to the floor. Too weak to stand, she made her way on her knees to her bed, leaving the candle in the hall, just outside her door. As she had suspected, it was hardest of all to enter this room.
A pink and white gown of dimity, yellowed, and grimed with dust, yet lay upon her bed. Cobwebs were woven over the lace that trimmed the neck and sleeves. Out of the fearful shadows, mute reminders of a lost joy mocked her from every corner of the room.
She knelt there until some measure of strength came back to her, and, with it, a mad fancy. "To-night," she said to herself, "I will be brave. For once I will play a part, since to-morrow I shall be free. To-night, it shall be as though nothing had happened--as though I were to be married to-morrow and not to--to Death!"
She laughed wildly, and, even to her own ears, it had a fantastic, unearthly sound. The empty rooms took up the echo and made merry with it, the sound dying at last into a silence like that of the tomb.
She brought in the candle, took the dimity gown from the bed, and shook it to remove the dust. In her hands it fell apart, broken, because it was too frail to tear. She laid it on a chair, folding it carefully, then took the dusty bedding from her bed and carried it into the hall, dust and all. In an oaken chest in a corner of her room was her store of linen, hemmed exquisitely and embroidered with the initials: "E. G."
She began to move about feverishly, fearing that her resolution might fail. The key of the chest was in a drawer in her dresser, hidden beneath a pile of yellowed garments. Her hands, so long nerveless, were alive and sentient now. When she opened the chest, the scent of lavender and rosemary, long since dead, struck her like a blow.
The room swam before her, yet Miss Evelina dragged forth her linen sheets and pillow-slips, musty, but clean, and made her bed. Once or twice, her veil slipped down over her face, and she impatiently pushed it back. The candle, burning low, warned her that she must make haste,
In one of the smaller drawers of her dresser was a nightgown of sheerest linen, wonderfully stitched by her own hands. She hesitated a moment, then opened the drawer.
Tiny bags of sweet herbs fell from the folds as she shook it out. It was yellowed and musty and as frail as a bit of fine lace, but it did not tear in her hands. "I will wear it," she thought, grimly, "as I planned to do, long ago."
At last she stood before her mirror, the ivory-tinted lace falling away from her neck and shoulders. Her neck was white and firm, but her right shoulder was deeply, hideously scarred. "Burned body and burned soul," she muttered, "and this my wedding night!"
For the first time in her life, she pitied herself, not knowing that self-pity is the first step toward relief from overpowering sorrow. When detachment is possible, the long, slow healing has faintly, but surely, begun.
She unpinned her veil, took down her heavy white hair, and braided it. There was no gleam of silver, even in the light--it was as lustreless as a field of snow upon a dark day. That done, she stood there, staring at herself in the mirror, and living over, remorselessly, the one day that, like a lightning stroke, had blasted her life.
Her veil slipped, unheeded, from her dresser to the floor. Leaning forward, she studied her face, that she had once loved, then swiftly learned to hate. Even on the street, closely veiled, she would not look at a shop window, lest she might see herself reflected in the plate glass, and she had kept the mirror, in her room covered with a cloth,
Since the day she left the hospital, where they all had been so kind to her, no human being, save herself, had seen her face. She had prayed for death, but had not been more than slightly ill, upborne, as she was, by a great grief which sustained her as surely as an ascetic is kept alive by the passion of his faith. She hungered now for the sight of her face as she hungered for death, and held the flaring candle aloft that she might see better.
Then a wave of impassioned self-pity swept her like flame. "The fire was kind," she said, stubbornly, as though to defend herself from it. "It showed me the truth."
She leaned yet closer to the glass, holding the dripping candle on high. "The fire was kind," she insisted again. Then the floodgates opened, and for the first time in all the sorrowful years, she felt the hot tears streaming over her face. Her hand shook, but she held her candle tightly and leaned so close to the mirror that her white hair brushed its cracked surface.
"The fire was kind," sobbed Miss Evelina. "Oh, but the fire was kind!"
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