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Stories, Dreams and Allegories. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
page: 81

On the Banks of a Full River

page: 83


IT was in the year 18—, the year of the great rains.

I, a young girl of sixteen, was going home from the South where I had been at school.

We travelled in a Cobb & Co.’s coach, nine passengers inside and four out; and all day and night it rained. We did in two days the journey we should have done in one; and when they changed horses they gave us no time to sleep. Night and day we travelled. On the evening of the ninth day we stopped on the banks of a full river. The greasy, coffee‐coloured water flowed level with the banks, and the heads of half‐drowned willow trees showed themselves on either side. We should not be able to cross that night, it might be not for days.

We looked out through the pouring rain. Beside us was a little mud house, the only habitation within thirty miles. It was square, with a divided door and one small window. The man to whom it belonged came out to meet us; he lived there alone and sold liquor to the passers‐by. It was arranged between him and the driver we should stay there for the night. page: 84 We alighted from the coach and streamed into the house; we found it consisted of one small room. I and the woman who was my only female travelling companion stood before the fire drying our clothes which had got damp in the passage from the coach to the house; the men stood round the table drinking bad brandy and whisky in cups and glasses, while the driver went out to see to his horses. There was nothing to be had to eat but some stale biscuits from a tin and some leathery roaster‐cake. Some one brought up the one chair the room contained and an empty soap box, and the woman and I sat down before the fire. By and by the driver came in, and the night darkened down quickly. The men still stood smoking and drinking round the table. The rain was falling less heavily. After a while the men conferred together and they decided, with that gentleness which rough men travelling alone with women always show, that they should all find shelter in the coach and the hut be left to us alone. The owner put the large stump of an uprooted willow tree upon the fire and in half an hour the men stumbled out; we could hear them swearing and grumbling in the rain on the way to the coach; and for an hour we caught broken peals of ribald laughter or obscene songs through the sound of the falling rain; then gradually all became quiet.

The room in which they left us had a bare mud page: 85 floor on which was only a white sheepskin that lay before the fire; on the brown mud wall there was a rack with two guns and a pistol, and in the centre of the room stood the table with empty bottles and glasses, and in the corner was a stretcher with one band broken and a thin mattress and three dirty blankets. There was no place in which one might lie down. The firelight flickered over the walls; the three inches of tallow candle they had left in a black bottle on the table had burnt itself out.

I grew tired of sitting on the soap box and slipped down and crouched on the white sheepskin before the fire. The woman sat in the chair on the right, her head so far back that the firelight did not shine on it. One could hardly tell whether she was awake or asleep.

She was a tall, slight woman dressed in black, and might have been any age between thirty and forty‐five. She had been very kind to me all the way; in the night when, without my knowing it, I grew sleepy and my head dropped, she laid it on her shoulder and I woke with it there in the morning. When it was cold she made me put on her great fur cloak, such as women from England have, and we talked of the scenery we passed through and of books, and we were friends, though neither of us had asked any question or knew anything of the other.

The rain still fell heavily, and far off one could page: 86 hear the rush of the river. I stared into the fire till the blaze from the glowing coals almost scorched my eyelashes.

Suddenly I turned to my companion.

“Life is very wicked; it is very unjust,” I said.

I raised myself on my knees.

She looked down at me and leaned forward. She had seemed almost asleep. She did not speak.

“It is very cruel; it is very unjust!” I said. “It is no use trying! Some people have everything and some people have nothing; and things are not as they should be!”

She put out her hand and I felt it on my head for a moment. Then she drew it back.

I was young, and I was suffering my first surprise at my first shattered ideal.

The woman raised herself and looked down at me. I laid my clenched fists upon my knees.

“I have found no balancing interrelation between the material and mental world,” she said. “If you go with love in your heart to fetch a cup of water for your friend, there is no relation between the intensity of the love and the cup’s fracture; if that is what you mean by justice in life, then there is none. But, in the emotional and intellectual spheres, human nature has a deep power of working out compensations; what is taken from us on the one hand works itself back to us on the other. There is nothing mysterious page: 87 in this, just as there is nothing mysterious in one scale of a balance going down and another up when you move matter from one to the other, though it might seem so to a little baby. There are times, thinking over life,” she said, “I have almost seemed to see the terms in which this balancing process might be stated so as to be clearly grasped intellectually. I think it is there.”

I sat looking into the fire. My heart was very bitter. I had had my first ideal shattered, my great plan for what was beautiful broken. I was beating my wings against the bars of the inevitable in life as young things do, battering the wings but not hurting the bars.

“Yes, but you do not know,” I said. And after a while I told her my story. It was a long story, and seemed to me then the only one in the world. There is no need I should repeat it fully:

Three years before I had gone to school on a farm in the South; it was a mixed school where boys and girls were taught together. There was one boy three years older than I. He and I were always at the head of the school. He worked hard at first to get up to me because he could not bear a girl should stand higher; but afterwards we became great friends.

(Note by S.C.C.S.—There is evidently a page or so missing here; the narrative would introduce the other girl and begin the delineation of her character in her attitude towards the lad; the delineation page: 88 is, however, clear enough in the passages immediately following. Apparently they had been having, were having, school holidays when the tale continues.)

... taught him to make flutes of reeds; sometimes she sat in the fork of the apple trees and he lay below and she threw down fruit to him; sometimes she brought her books to him and asked him questions, and she said he was so wonderful when he could explain; and the one thing he had never needed was praise. Then the holidays came to an end. We had brought much work to do that he might pass the last examination; but, when I came to look for him, he was walking laughing with her, and I hid the books under my arm. The last day of the holidays she came to me and said he was not going back to school. Her father had offered him £20 a month to oversee the wine farming. They could have got anyone else for five, she said, but her father had done it because she asked him. “All this is mine,” she said. “There is no one else to inherit it; my father lets me do what I like with it and I want him to have it.” I talked with him once. He seemed a little sorry, but he could not refuse £20. I did not go back to school for the next quarter; I came straight home; I was on my journey up. I sat beside the fire and told the story.

“You see,” I said, when I had finished it, “he is lost, his beautiful possibilities are dead; she will page: 89 drag him down, down. It would have been better if she had killed him!” And I laid my clenched hands on my knees. It would have been easy for me to have killed myself, I so hated that girl as I stood there.

The woman said: “Are you quite just? Are you sure it is she who has dragged him down?”

“I hate her, oh, I hate her so!” I said. “I would have forgiven her if she had killed him, but not for this.”

(Note by S.C.C.S.—A gap occurs here.)

“... study more. You see,” I said, “I don’t mind that he hates me, but I mind that he will never do anything more; he will marry and settle down. She has killed him. It is as if she were a soft greasy snake, and she had crept over him, and put her tooth into his body and the poison has crept in and in and he is dead, he is asleep for ever.”

She said: “Can other people ever poison us?”

I said: “They can! But I could wake him. That is the terrible thing. If I could tell him what she was, if I could have had one half‐hour’s talk with him (and he had sought it), I could make him fling her off as a man flings off a toad when he wakes and sees it sitting on him. That’s the terrible thing! That’s why I’ve asked my friends to get me home at once because I dare not stay there. If once I were to page: 90 talk against her to him, then my soul would be lost, as hers is now. You see I can’t,” I said. “I must go away where I can never see him any more and leave him to her!”

I looked up, but the woman was sitting motionless on the chair and the firelight was dancing on the guns in the rack.

“You see,” I said, “people say she is a clever woman; she is strong; they say she can have every‐thing; it’s the poor, weak, gentle, little women that need looking after, that must be taken care of. It’s a lie; it’s we that are weak! If the snake once thinks it wrong to use its poison fangs and begins to develop feet, and makes a noise with them as it comes on, is it stronger? It’s higher, of course, higher! What is that higher? It is weakness. Is there anything so strong as the snake when it creeps on noiselessly with its fangs and its silent glide? The horse, the elephant, the lion, are nothing to it. Take this from it and what has it left? It has not the speed, the claws, the thick skin of the others! A snake without its poison bag, who gives notice when it is coming,” I laughed,—“every creature can put his foot on its head and crush out its poor unused poison bag that it has never used. It will never be a lion or an elephant for all its feet. A woman with intellect and strength and the ideal of acting strictly by other women—haugh! She is dirt beneath everyone’s feet. There is nothing page: 91 so weak on the earth. She will never be a man! Life gave women subtlety and lying and meanness and flattery that they might defend themselves. They have all things if they will use their tools.”

We were silent for a moment; then she said: “Do you think any strong, intellectual woman ever really wanted to be a weak one? Is it not better to have half‐developed hands and feet, and be trodden on? Does it matter so much what one has as what one is?”

And she said after a time: “Does one really ever gain anything by subtlety? Is it not seeming?”

I said: “Oh, it is such a terrible thing to be a woman. You can do nothing for those you love. You must wait, crush out, kill, in yourself. The old passive women who took indirect means, they are happy.”

She said: “Do you think so?”

Then she said after a time: “I knew two women in England; one was older, and the younger lived with her; she was her cousin. The younger was what the world calls a strong, intellectual woman; she painted. The other was what the world calls a gentle, womanly woman; she had married, when she was young, a rich man, and had three children. She had a very beautiful home, and she always pictured herself to herself as the central image in it, the most beautiful of all. The younger woman knew an artist who worked at the same studio; she loved him as only page: 92 people can love who love the work and the objects of others, not only their persons. Every day she went to his studio and criticised his work; when he was satisfied, she was not; she wanted something better; she had a greater dream for his future than she ever told him. They were very near to each other. She never spoke of love to him: what need is there to talk of love to a man, when he knows his work is more to you than your own; and you love your own?”

“And then?” I said.

“After two years he came to the house where she lived with her older cousin. At first the woman took little notice of him; then she used to have glasses of jelly ready for him when he came, and let him lie on the sofa in her great room in the garden. He took her to his studio: she stood still a long time before one picture, and said, ‘Oh, please don’t speak to me; it makes me feel like a beautiful summer’s day to look at it’; and the young woman had told him to burn it; it was unworthy of him. She said she wanted her picture painted with her little baby, and he painted her as a madonna with her child in her arms with their cheeks touching. I do not think he cared for her then. He simply painted her. She gave the picture to her husband, and asked the young man to come to her house oftener.”

“And then?”

“Then one day she talked of him to the younger page: 93 woman. I do not say she told the younger woman she loved him; that would have been wrong in a married woman; but she knew the nature of the younger woman; she spoke so that she implied that she liked him. When she wanted to go for a drive she did not say to the younger woman, ‘You stay at home. I want to go this afternoon.’ She said, ‘You go, dear, I don’t mind staying at all; I’m sure you’ll enjoy it more than I do’; and then the younger woman stayed. And that night it was moonlight and the younger woman was walking in agony on a terrace that ran beside the house. It was terrible another woman should love the man she loved; in a moment all the lovely beauty was gone ...”

I said, “I hate that woman!”

... “and then the older woman and the man came out and stood under a great tree to hear the nightingales sing, and she talked of the younger woman, and the young man said, ‘Yes, she is too restlessly energetic,’ and so they talked. The elder knew that the younger was there, and the younger knew she knew it. Then she went into the house. You see her love was broken. She thought what was best to be done. You can’t cope with such women, you can’t touch them, you must leave them. The day you touch them you sink to their level; you don’t only lose your love, you degrade it: it was white as far as she was concerned. So she thought the thing out; page: 94 and that night she packed her things; the next day she left. She did not say good‐bye to the man. She came out to Africa; for many years she lived here. After a while, seven or eight years, she married a man who was dying of consumption and took care of his two children when he was dead. She had a happy life. It was nice to take care of the children. She had plenty to do.”

The woman sat still.

“And the other woman?” I asked.

“She lived on in her beautiful house with her husband and children and was very happy. The young artist never understood why his friend left; he came often to the house; and lay on the great sofa, and the woman gave him jelly and soups to strengthen him for his work. He never worked much, but he always came to see her; they were very intimate friends till her husband died,”

(Note by S.C.C.S.—The page numbered 16 by Olive ends here; what follows is on page numbered 18.)

“... Need you envy a man for holding dust in his hand? What is the use of possessing a man if you hold him and possess him through flattery? Is a man worth having who desires it?”

I said, “Yes, but she had what she desired. When her husband died she could have him always with her; the last little restraint was gone; she could wait page: 95 on him and help him. That is what we women want when we love a man.”

She sat still, twirling the ...

(Note by S.C.C.S.—Here ends page 18. What follows is on page numbered 20 by Olive.)

I said, “What?”

She said, “Pity her, she married him.”

We sat still in the firelight.

I said at last: “Did those two women ever meet again?”

She said: “Yes, once, after years. The elder woman came out to South Africa and they met once.”

I sat looking into the fire.