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Anthony Dexter sat on the porch in front of his house, alone. Ralph had been out since early morning, attending to his calls. It was the last of April and the trees were brave in their panoply of new leaves. Birds were singing and the very air was eloquent with new life.
Between Anthony Dexter and the lilac bush at the gate, there moved perpetually the black, veiled figure of Evelina Grey. He knew she was not there and he was fully certain of the fact that it was an hallucination, but his assurance had not done away with the phantom.
How mercilessly she followed him! Since the night he had flung himself out of her house, tortured in every nerve, she had not for a moment left him. When he walked through the house, she followed him, her stealthy footfall sounding just the merest fraction of a second after his. He avoided the bare polished floors and walked on the rugs whenever possible, that he might not hear that soft, slow step so plainly. Ralph had laughed at him, once, for taking a long, awkward jump from rug to rug.
Within the line of his vision she moved horizontally, but never back and forth. Sometimes her veiled face was averted, and sometimes, through the eternal barrier of chiffon, he could feel her burning eyes fixed pitilessly upon his.
He never slept, now, without drugs. Gradually he had increased the dose, but to no purpose. Evelina haunted his sleep endlessly and he had no respite. Through the dull stupor of the night, she was never for a moment absent, and in every horrible dream, she stood in the foreground, mute, solitary, accusing.
He was fully aware of the fact that he was in the clutches of a drug addiction, but that was nothing to be feared in comparison with his veiled phantom. He had exhausted the harmless soporifics long ago, and turned, perforce, to the swift and deadly ministers of forgetfulness.
The veiled figure moved slowly back and forth across the yard, lifting its skirts daintily to avoid a tiny pool of water where a thirsty robin was drinking. The robin, evidently, did not fear Evelina. He could hear the soft, slow footfalls on the turf, and the echo of three or four steps upon the brick walk, when she crossed. She kept carefully within the line of his vision; he did not have to turn his head to see her. When he did turn his head, she moved with equal swiftness. Not for a single pitying instant was she out of his sight.
Farther on, doubtless, as he thought, she would come closer. She might throw back her veil as she had done on that terrible night, or lay her cold hand on his--she might even speak to him. What hideous conversations they might have--he and the woman he had once loved and to whom he was still bound! Anthony Dexter knew now that even his marriage had not released him and that Evelina had held him, through all the five-and-twenty years.
Such happiness as he had known had been purely negative. The thrill of joyous life had died, for him, the day he took Evelina into the laboratory. He was no longer capable of caring for any one except Ralph. The remnant of his cowardly heart was passionately and wholly given to his son.
He meditated laying his case before Ralph. as one physician to another, then the inmost soul of him shuddered at the very thought. Rather than have Ralph know, he would die a thousand deaths. He would face the uttermost depths of hell, rather than see those clear, honest eyes fixed upon him in judgment.
He might go to the city to see a specialist--it would be an easy matter to accomplish, and Ralph would gladly attend to his work. Yes, he might go--he and Evelina. He could go to a brother physician and say:
"This woman haunts me. She saved my life and continually follows me. I want her kept away. What, do you not see her, too?"
Anthony Dexter laughed harshly, and fancied that the veiled figure paused slightly at the sound. "No," he said, aloud, "you need not prepare for travel, Evelina. We shall not go to the city--you and I."
That was his mate, walking in his garden before him, veiled. She was his and he was hers. They were mated as two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, forming a molecule of water. All these years, her suffering had reacted upon him, kept him from being happy, and made him fight continually to keep her out of his remembrance. For having kept her out, he was paying, now, with compound interest.
Upon a lofty spire of granite stands a wireless telegraph instrument. Fogs are thick about it, wild surges crash in the unfathomable depths below; the silence is that of chaos, before the first day of creation. Out of the emptiness, a world away, comes a message. At the first syllable, the wireless instrument leaps to answer its mate. With the universe between them, those two are bound together, inextricably, eternally bound. One may fancy that a disorder in one might cause vague unrest in the other. In like manner, Evelina's obsession had preyed upon Anthony Dexter for twenty-five years. Now, the line was at work again and there was an unceasing flow of communication.
Perhaps, if he had the strength, he might learn to ignore the phantom as he had ignored memory. Eventually, he might be able to put aside the eternal presence as he had put aside his own cowardice. There was indefinite comfort in the thought.
Having preached the gospel of work for so long, he began to apply it to himself. Work was undoubtedly what he needed--the one thing which could set him right again. After a little, he could make the rounds with Ralph, and dwell constantly in the boy's sunny presence. In the meantime, there was his paper, for the completion of which one more experiment was absolutely essential.
He stirred uneasily in his chair. He wished that Ralph had not been so womanish, or else that he had more diplomatically concealed his own opinions, to which, indeed, Ralph had admitted his right. Condemnation from Ralph was the one thing he could not bear, but, after all, was it needful that Ralph should know?
The experiment would not take long, as he wished to satisfy himself on but one minor point. It could be done, easily, while Ralph was out upon his daily round. Behind the lilac bushes there was yet room for one more tiny grave.
One more experiment, and then, in deference to Ralph's foolish, effeminate sentiments, he would give it up. One more heart in action, the conclusion of his brilliant paper, and then--why, he would be willing to devote the rest of his life, in company with Ralph, to curing whooping-cough, measles, and mumps.
The veiled figure still paced restlessly back and forth, now on the turf and now on the brick walk. He closed his eyes, but he still saw Evelina and noted the slight difference of sound in her footfalls as she crossed the walk. He heard the swish of her skirts as she lifted them when she passed the pool of water--was it possible that his hearing was becoming more keen? He was sure that he had not heard it from that distance before.
It was certainly an inviting yard and the gate stood temptingly ajar. The gravelled highway was rough for a little dog's feet, and Laddie and the Piper had travelled far. For many a mile, there had been no water, and in this cool, green yard, there was a small pool. Laddie whined softly and nosed the gate farther open.
A man sat on the porch, but he was asleep--anyhow, his eyes were closed. Perhaps he had a dog of his own. At any rate, he could not object to a tired yellow mongrel quenching his thirst at his pool. The Piper had gone on without observing that his wayworn companion had stopped.
Except for a mob of boys who had thrown stones at him and broken his leg, humans had been kind to Laddie. It had been a human, Piper Tom, in fact, who had rescued him from the boys and made his leg good again. Laddie cherished no resentment against the mob, for he had that eternal forgiveness of blows and neglect which lives in the heart of the commonest cur.
Opening his eyes, Anthony Dexter noted that a small, rough-coated yellow dog was drinking eagerly at the pool of water past which Evelina continually moved. She went by twice while the dog was drinking, but he took no notice of her. Neither robins nor dogs seemed to fear Evelina--it was only men, or, to be exact, one man, who had hitherto feared nothing save self-analysis.
The turf was cool and soft to a little dog's tired feet. Laddie walked leisurely toward the shrubbery, where there was deep and quiet shade. Under the lilac bush, he lay down to rest, but was presently on his feet again, curiously exploring the place.
He sniffed carefully at the ground behind the lilac bushes, and the wiry hair on his back bristled. There was something uncanny about it, and a guarding instinct warned him away. But what was this that lay on the ground, so soaked with rains that, in the shade, it had not yet dried? Laddie dragged it out into the sunlight to see.
It was small and square and soft on the outside, yet hard within. Except for the soft, damp outer covering, it might have been the block of pine with which Piper Tom and he would play by the hour. The Piper would throw the block of wood far from him, sometimes even into the water, and Laddie would race after it, barking gaily. When he brought it back, he was rewarded with a pat on the head, or, sometimes, a bone. Always, there would be friendly talk. Perhaps the man on the porch had thrown this, and was waiting for him to bring it back.
Laddie took the mysterious thing carefully in his strong jaws, and trotted exultantly up to the porch, wagging his stub of a tail. Strangely enough, just at the steps, the thing opened, and something small and cold and snake-like slipped out. The man could scarcely have seen the necklace of discoloured pearls before, with an oath, he rose to his feet, and, firmly holding Laddie under his arm, strode into the house, entering at the side door.
The Piper had reached home before he missed his dog. He waited a little, then called, but there was no answer. It was not like Laddie to stray, for he was usually close at his master's heels.
"Poor little man," said the Piper to himself, "I'm thinking we went too far."
He retraced his steps over the dusty road, searching the ground. He discovered that Laddie's tracks ended in the road near Doctor Dexter's house, and turned toward the gate. Tales of mysterious horrors, vaguely hinted at, came back to him now with ominous force. He searched the yard carefully, looking in every nook and corner, then a cry of anguish reached his ears.
Great beads of sweat stood out upon Piper Tom's forehead, as he burst in at the laboratory door. On a narrow table, tightly strapped down, lay Laddie, fully conscious, his faithful heart laid bare. The odour of anesthetics was so faint as to be scarcely noticeable. At the dog's side stood Doctor Dexter, in a blood-stained linen coat, with a pad of paper and a short pencil in his white, firm hands. He was taking notes.
With infinite appeal in his agonised eyes, Laddie recognised his master, who at last had come too late. Piper Tom seized the knife from the table, and, with a quick, clean stroke, ended the torture. Doctor Dexter looked up, his mask-like face wearing an expression of insolent inquiry.
"Man," cried the Piper, his voice shaking, "have you never been loved by a dog?"
The silence was tense, but Doctor Dexter had taken out his watch, and was timing the spasmodic pulsations of the heart he had been so carefully studying.
"Aye," said the Piper, passionately, "watch it till the last--you cannot hurt him now. 'T is the truest heart in all the world save a woman's, and you do well to study it, having no heart of your own. A poor beast you are, if a dog has never loved you. Take your pencil and write down on the bit of paper you have there that you've seen the heart of a dog. Write down that you've seen the heart of one who left his own kind to be with you, to fight for you, even against them. Write down that 't is a good honest heart with red blood in it, that never once failed and never could fail.
"When a man's mother casts him off, when his wife forsakes him, when his love betrays him, his dog stays true. When he's poor and his friends pass him by on the other side of the street, looking the other way, his dog fares with him, ready to starve with him for very love of him. 'T is a man and his dog, I'm thinking, against the whole world.
"This little lad here was only a yellow mongrel, there was no fine blood in him; he couldn't bring in the birds nor swim after the ducks men kill to amuse themselves. He was worth no high price to anybody--nobody wanted him but me. When I took him away from the boys who were hurting him, and set his poor broken leg as best I could, he knew me for his master and claimed me then.
"He's walked with me through four States and never whined. He's gone without food for days at a time, and never complained. He's been cold and hungry, and we've slept together, more than once, on the ground in the snow, with only one blanket between us. He's kept me from freezing to death with his warm body, he's suffered from thirst the same as I, and never so much as whimpered. We've been comrades and we've fared together, as only man and dog may fare.
"When every man's face was set against you, did you never have a dog to trust you? When there was never a man nor a woman you could call your friend, did a dog never come to you and lick your hand? When you've been bent with grief you couldn't stand up under, did a dog never come to you and put his cold nose on your face? Did a dog never reach out a friendly paw to tell you that you were not alone--that it was you two together?
"When you've come home alone late at night, tired to death with the world and its ways, was there never a dog to greet you with his bark of welcome? Did a dog never sit where you told him to sit, and guard your property till you came back, though it might be hours? When you could trust no man to guard your treasures, could you never trust a dog? Man, man, the world has fair been cruel if you've never known the love of a dog!
"I've heard these things of you, but I thought folks were prattling, as folks will, but dogs never do. I thought they were lying about you--that such things couldn't be true. They said you were cutting up dogs to learn more of people, and I'm thinking, if we're so much alike as that, 't is murder to kill a dog."
"You killed him," said Anthony Dexter, speaking for the first time. "I didn't."
"Yes," answered the Piper, "I killed him, but 't was to keep him from being hurt. I'd do the same for a man or a woman, if there was need. If 't was a child you had tied down here with your blood-stained straps, cut open to see an innocent heart, your own being black past all pardon, I'd do the same for the child and all the more quickly if it was my own. I never had a child--I've never had a woman to love me, but I've been loved by a dog. I've thought that even yet I might know the love of a woman, for a man who deserves the love of a dog is worthy of a woman, and a man who will torture a dog will torture a woman, too.
"Laddie," said the Piper, laying his hand upon the blood-stained body, "no man ever had a truer comrade, and I'll not insult your kind by calling this brute a cur. Laddie, it was you and I, and now it's I alone. Laddie--" here the Piper's voice broke, and, taking up the knife again, he cut the straps. With the tears raining down his face, he stumbled out of the laboratory, the mutilated body of his pet in his arms.
Anthony Dexter looked after him curiously. The mask-like expression of his face was slightly changed. In a corner of the laboratory, seeming to shrink from him, stood the phantom black figure, closely veiled. Out of the echoing stillness came the passionate accusation: "A man who will torture a dog will torture a woman, too."
He carefully removed the blood stains from the narrow table, and pushed it back in its place, behind a screen. The straps were cut, and consequently useless, so he wrapped them up in a newspaper and threw them into the waste basket. He cleaned his knife with unusual care, and wiped an ugly stain from his forceps.
Then he took off his linen coat, folded it up, and placed it in the covered basket which held soiled linen from the laboratory. He washed his hands and copied the notes he had made, for there was blood upon the page. He tore the original sheet into fine bits, and put the pieces into the waste basket. Then he put on his cuffs and his coat, and went out of the laboratory.
He was dazed, and did not see that his own self-torture had filled him with primeval lust to torture in return. He only knew that his brilliant paper must remain forever incomplete, since his services to science were continually unappreciated and misunderstood. What was one yellow dog, more or less, in the vast economy of Nature? Was he lacking in discernment, because, as Piper Tom said, he had never been loved by a dog?
He sat down in the library to collect himself and observed, with a curious sense of detachment, that Evelina was walking in the hall instead of in the library, as she usually did when he sat there.
An hour--or perhaps two--went by, then, unexpectedly, Ralph came home, having paused a moment outside. He rushed into the library with his face aglow.
"Look, Dad," he cried, boyishly, holding it at arm's length; "see what I found on the steps! It's a pearl necklace, with a diamond in the clasp! Some of the stones are discoloured, but they're good and can be made right again, I've found it, so it's mine, and I'm going to give it to the girl I marry!"
Anthony Dexter's pale face suddenly became livid. He staggered over to Ralph, snatched the necklace out of his hand, and ground the pearls under his heel. "No," he cried, "a thousand times, no! The pearls are cursed!"
Then, for the second time, he fainted.
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