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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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'TWAS a bright summer afternoon, just three weeks after my arrival in England. We were expecting visitors, and Aunt Margaret and I had taken our needlework out among the rose trees in the garden.

My brother Frank lolled beside us on the grass, pulling flowers to pieces and showering the leaves over Aunt Margaret's golden hair and white dress. He had changed in the three years that had passed since last I saw him, and had grown noble and handsome enough, I thought, even to possess the beautiful woman on whom his eyes were resting. In my estimation no one else was worthy to own her; certainly not my grandfather, whom I could not learn to like. He reminded me, when I first saw him, of the ox hides so often seen lying near the little dam at home, which had once been damp but by dint of lying in the sun had been reduced to a stone-like mass of wrinkles and lines; and he was so tall and thin. For a long time I never could see him rise from his seat without having recalled to my mind the image of an earthworm creeping out of the ground, which page: 34 unfolds and unfolds itself to unimagined lengths. He had more resemblance to the skin than to the earthworm, however; for he was mentally as ossified and incapable of growth as any ox hide under the sun. Only in connection with Aunt Margaret did there seem a trace of softness in his nature, and it could not be otherwise. Nature gives to a few persons to have the influence of sunshine on all they touch—silently softening, warming, melting it—and she was one. I worshipped her; for in those days I had not eaten of the tree of knowledge, and worshipped and thought perfect all I loved.

I did not care for my grandmother nor yet dislike her. She was a weak, nervous little old woman, who had had all the soul pressed out of her long ago, and whose trembling little hands I never saw at rest for an instant, except she were asleep.

On that summer afternoon we three sat there, feeling very happy. They because they were together, and I because the roses were beautiful and the sky blue and they glad. The work had dropped from my hands and I had just got into a delicious dream, in which rosebuds, princes and spirits were largely concerned, when Frank tossed a great white rosebud into my face.

“At your old work again,” he said, laughing. “You've no idea,” turning to Aunt Margaret, “what evil thoughts are always fermenting in that little innocent-looking head. It's my decided opinion that page: 35 in a pre-state of existence she was a Buddhist philosopher, or something else equally disagreeable and full of contemplations, and at her rebirth she did not become quite rejuvenised or lose all her old habits; otherwise I can't account for her,” said Frank, turning round onto his back, while Aunt Margaret and I laughed.

“It's all very well to laugh,” he continued, “but she is awfully bad, much worse than I am. She is only a little girl and she has not any right to have thoughts at all. It's all very well for me to think that it's a hard state of affairs when a poor fellow has to be called into existence for the purpose of being sent to fire and brimstone; but it does not do for her; it's highly improper, highly,” said Frank, rolling round onto his face again.

Aunt Margaret opened her big blue eyes and looked at me. I had been so shy and said so little since I came there, that I think they all thought me a particularly childish child; and I was glad of it. I was young, but I had learnt a little worldly wisdom—enough to tell me that, if a man is unfortunate enough to have ideas of his own, he had best keep them to himself. I was tired of being called queer and strange and odd, and all those other epithets which I had so learned to hate; and here was Frank dragging all my weaknesses out into the sunshine that the old names might be branded on me again. What I should have said I don't know, page: 36 but at that moment, greatly to my joy, our expected guests arrived. They consisted of a parson, his wife, an old young lady, and a certain Jonathan Barnacles, whose wife had been a cousin to my father. All these had come to assist in the stirring up of the deadened consciences of my grandfather's congregation.

From behind our wall of roses we could, without being seen, observe and criticise them as they walked up the long garden path.

The advance was led by the Rev. Joseph Goodman and his portly spouse, both tall, both fat: she decidedly good looking, with large brown eyes and a Roman nose; he, decidedly greasy and with a dirty white choker. I was struck dumb with horror at the way in which the good lady turned her head from side to side, evidently bent, as I thought, on discovering our whereabouts, but, as I afterwards learnt, merely from a long-acquired habit and a wish to overlook no one.

Close at their heels was a little angular figure, dressed in a very fashionable and juvenile manner, whose head and face were completely enveloped in a blue gauze veil. Frank said she had taken to attending revivals and staying to prayer-meetings only since the arrival in their circuit of a young assistant preacher whose mother she was old enough to be.

The rear was brought up by Jonathan Barnacles, page: 37 Esq., at whom I looked with more interest; for, after the Dutch fashion, might he not be called a relation of mine? He was a lean, bony man of about two-and-forty, with large calm blue eyes, lanky and scanty hair and beard, and an enormous mouth—a mouth that seemed forever hungering and seeking after something. I wished he were no connection of mine when I looked at it, little child though I was. Looked at from the lip upwards, he might have been an angel; looked at from the lip downwards, he might have been a devil. He was dressed then—and I never, in all the years I knew him, saw him in anything else, except on Sundays—in a rusty brown jacket and a pair of dark green-and-blue-plaid trousers. To me those trousers have become so a part of the man that I can never see any like them without being unpleasantly reminded of him.

As soon as the visitors had gone into the house Aunt Margaret rose to follow them, and Frank and I were left alone. He asked me if I were going to the revival meeting that evening. “You had better,” he said; “it's great fun. I always do: I take my notebook and pencil; one hears things worth remembering sometimes. Besides, you'll get into hot water if you don't go, and pretend to be edified, too. There are just three grand crimes according to your grandfather's creed—to give expression to an idea that has not been propounded at least one hundred times before you were born; to believe in the pos- possible page: 38 sible salvation of a Roman Catholic; and to absent yourself from a little heaven below: “I have been there, and still would go, 'Tis like a little heaven below—” hummed Frank as he rose to go into the house, where he would no doubt look up his “Golden Light,” as he nicknamed Aunt Margaret.

I went to the revival meeting that evening, for I had never been to one before. Aunt Margaret and I started some time after the others, so we had a pleasant long walk all to ourselves. Frank, in spite of the sage advice of the morning, did not go. I suppose, having got what he wanted, he did not care whether he pleased my grandfather or not, and could not make up his mind to leave an easy chair and cigar for “those purgatorial Methodist planks,” as he irreverently called the straight-backed pews in my grandfather's chapel.

We walked on in silence at first through the quiet twilight. At last I said: “Do you like going to revival meetings? Do they do you good, Aunt Margaret?”

“I don't know that they ever did,” she said, hesitating a little, “but Christ does show himself wonderfully sometimes; and I feel, if only one soul is saved, it must be God's own work and I must help it. Think, if only one soul be saved from endless pain and sin, what a glorious work.”

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The twilight gave me boldness, so I said, “I wish you could feel as I do, that our Father will let nothing he has made be lost forever. As long as I believe as you do I could not love him, nor serve him; but since I have left off looking to the Bible, and listen to what he says in my own soul, I love him and I am happy.”

“I wish you could make me think so too,” she said, “but I know it is wrong even to say so. If once we listen to our own hearts and use our reason, we go away from God. Yet do you know, if some one whom I loved very much were to die not loving Christ, I think—I am sure, I should go mad, quite mad. It is so terrible that you cannot pray for them, that you cannot do anything for them when once they are gone. We must pray for them now, now,” she said, with a passionate earnestness that astonished me; she was so bright and placid generally.

I looked up into her face, and I fancied there were tears in her eyes, but I could hardly tell, for it was so dark. I knew of whom she was thinking, and long after I remembered her words.

The chapel was dimly lighted. Only round the pulpit there were two or three candles, whose light served to make clearly visible the three principal actors in the scene about to be performed.

In front of the pulpit stood Cousin Jonathan, and when he spoke I could look at nothing but that mouth, that dreadful mouth, that seemed to have page: 40 a horrible fascination for me. On his right he was supported by the Rev. Joseph Goodman, who stood with eyes turned heavenwards and fat hands folded meekly across his greasy and distended waistcoat. On his left stood my grandfather, his cold hard eye engaged in critically examining the scattered occupants of the different pews.

The proceedings were opened by the singing of a hymn, in which the torments awaiting all mankind, except that infinitesimal portion who are believers in Christ, were set forth vividly, and in no bad verse. That being ended, my grandfather engaged in prayer. The prayer was very much in the same key as the hymn had been, but a little bolder and weaker. When it was ended Brother Vickers prayed. He was one of those who most frequently called Frank's notebook into requisition; and if my grandfather's way of treating fire and brimstone was cool and calm, so certainly was not his. The good man fairly worked himself into a profuse perspiration and dragged away at the pew-back before us with both hands and with such fervent energy that I momentarily expected to see him fly, pew-back and all, against my head.

Brother Vickers' prayer ended, another hymn was sung, and then Brother Jones was called upon.

Some men must think the Almighty very ignorant, for they never kneel down to speak to him without feeling themselves called upon to explain to him page: 41 the whole plan of salvation, creation, and damnation: subjects on which, one might almost suppose, he would be better informed than themselves. Brother Jones was one of these. It may have been that my mood was not very charitable that evening, but it certainly seemed to me that, in place of praying to any other being, he was laying out for his own personal edification and satisfaction the whole circle of his theological knowledge.

When we rose from our knees, before Cousin Jonathan gave out the next hymn, Mr. Goodman came forward and told us that, if the spirit of God had touched any of our hearts during the preceding prayers, we were requested to come up.

“Do come up, dear friends, do come up,” he said.

The hymn finished, the spirit still remaining inactive and no one having accepted the invitation, it was repeated a second time, more urgently than at first.

“Do come up, dear friends, do come up. While Brother Stiles engages in prayer, do come up.”

Brother Stiles began, Brother Stiles ended; no one moved.

Before Brother Stubbles engaged, the invitation was again renewed:

“The time is young, dear friends. Will no one begin? Will no one come up?”

No one would; so Brother Stubbles began. Between every verse of the hymn that followed Mr. page: 42 Goodman continued to ask, at last almost with tears, if no one would come up, if no one would lead the way. “Do come, do come,” he cried, as he moved both hands unctuously to and fro; and my heart was touched with pity for the unfortunate man. I looked round the chapel anxiously to see if there was no sign of an upward movement, but could discover none.

Brother Snappers, who prayed next, seemed to have been moved in the same way, for he scolded quite rabidly: If there were any there that evening (and he knew there were such) whose hearts God had touched, let them beware! If they refused to accept the invitation, if they refused to come up, that night, that very moment, the spirit of God might leave them; and that day year, or that day month, or that day week, nay, by that time tomorrow, they might be in that place from which there would be no coming up forever. He did not say so, but he left one the impression that he would not have many tears to weep if such were the case.

Brother Goodman himself prayed next, a rambling, meandering sort of prayer, which would have been just as suitable at a funeral, a coronation, or a wedding.

Then Cousin Jonathan, after a last vain appeal, closed the meeting with a prayer; and that prayer, sweet, tender and earnest, seemed strangely out of harmony with the rest of the evening's proceedings. page: 43 'Twas like entering a silent sunny cove after being tossed among black breakers. He prayed for those who had not yet felt the love of Christ, that to them it might speak with its glorious power, till at length, perfect in purity, they might become but the living reflection of that unfathomable love. Perfect purity, perfect truth; through every sentence the yearning for it breathed; and when we rose from our knees and I looked up into his face, I could not see that the mouth was always craving something; I looked only at the serene eyes and brow.

When the meeting was over we all walked home rather silently, for it had been a failure to all of us. As for myself, I had made up my mind, even in spite of Cousin Jonathan's beautiful prayer, never to attend another; never, come what would. On our way home the Goodmans turned in to have a chat at Brother Vickers's, Frank and Aunt Margaret went for a stroll on the beach, and when we got to the house my grandfather and Cousin Jonathan took themselves off to the study. There was nothing else to be done, so I curled myself up at one end of the great parlour sofa with Wolf's fairy tales. I still enjoyed them as much as I had done when I was eight years old, though I had such an old, old-womanish feeling sometimes.

Presently my grandmother and Miss Mell came in and sat down at the other end of the room. I think they soon forgot my presence; Miss Mell kept page: 44 up a constant flow of talk, while my poor nervous little grandmother put in a timid little yes or no when she thought it required, and pulled away at the fringe of her crochet wrapper. She was old and not beautiful, but she looked so beside Miss Mell who sat opposite her in her juvenile dress, with her wrinkles and her sharp nose and chin, over which the skin was drawn so tightly that a little more would surely have caused it to crack. At first I was too much engrossed by my book to pay any attention to what they said; but when my tale was ended I sat and listened.

“A pity she praises up those great fat girls so,” Miss Mell was just saying of Mrs. Goodman. “They are the ugliest girls in the village, but she can't see it. She has a very good opinion of herself, too,” continued Miss Mell, seeing that my grandmother gave no response; “and she imagines there is no other minister's wife to be compared with her, and I know that she takes good care never to go where there is any infectious disease, and—”

Here the door opened and Mrs. Goodman's face, with its beaming smile, presented itself. “Did you think I was very long gone, dear?” she said to Miss Mell; and, kissing my grandmother affectionately, added, “It was a shame to leave you, but the dear good creatures would have it so, and I came back to you just as soon as I could, dear, just as soon.” She seated herself close to my grandmother and, taking page: 45 one of her hands, proceeded to pat, smooth, and caress it during the whole of the conversation which ensued.

“What were you talking about, dears, when I came in? I am sure it was something very entertaining; Miss Mell's conversation always is so entertaining. As Sarah Jane said to me yesterday afternoon: ‘Oh, Ma! There comes Miss Mell. Shall we not have a nice afternoon!’ And we had a pleasant time. Had we not, my dear?”

“Very. Did I tell you that Alice Brown had come back?” asked Miss Mell.

“No, dear, you did not; but when I was up at Mrs. Barnacles' this morning she told me of it, and that she has grown into such a beautiful girl! Is it true?”

“Beautiful!” said Miss Mell, with a sharpening in her voice that made it very fit company for her nose. “I should beg to be excused from such beauty! She's as large as an elephant and a great deal coarser, and as for her forest of hair—the best thing she could do with it would be to cut it off; it's as black and coarse as a horse's tail!”

“I don't know what she looks like,” said Mrs. Goodman, shaking her head, “but she's been very badly brought up.”

“Brought up!” interrupted Miss Mell. “Why, she has not been brought up at all. They were the lowest people in the place till they got this money page: 46 left them, the lowest and the poorest; and she is the worst of them. Did you ever hear of that affair with young Mr. Blair?”

“No, my dear, I heard nothing,” said Mrs. Goodman, in her great interest for a moment forgetting to caress my grandmother's hand.

“It's about two years ago now,” said Miss Mell. “Mr. Albert Blair was swimming in the great pool near Brown's house and got cramp. He called for help, and the girl (she was then about fifteen) happened to hear him. You will hardly credit it, but in place of going for some one, she actually had the immodesty to tear off her own clothes and leap in; and, as if that were not enough, she actually carried him in her arms up to their house. You may believe me, for I had it all on the best authority; my servant was very intimate with the Browns in those days, and she told me all about it. She said, too, that he sent her ever so many presents afterwards, and thought nothing of stopping to speak with her in the streets—the brazen-faced creature.”

“Is it possible, my dear!” said Mrs. Goodman. “How wanting in modesty and self-respect! How very shocking!”

“It's not the worst thing we shall hear of her, mark my words,” said Miss Mell, with a gleam of intense satisfaction in her grey eyes as she gave utterance to this prediction; which, considering its nature, was by no means unlikely of fulfilment.

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“Ah! this is a sad, sad, wicked world,” said Mrs. Goodman, gazing fixedly at the wall opposite and shaking her head slowly. “As I said to Sarah Jane only this morning, if once we depend on our own weak selves how miserably we shall fail, fail, fail!”

Miss Mell, not perceiving the exact bearing of these remarks on the subject in hand, sat still; but my grandmother uttered a timid, “Yes.”

“Ah! you may well say yes, dear. I have had a dreadful blow this evening. Oh, it is a wicked, wicked world in which we live. If my dear girls had not given their hearts to Christ, I should tremble for them, yes, even for them”; and the tears that had been gathering in the good woman's eyes rolled slowly down her cheeks.

“What have you heard?” said Miss Mell, who already scented something good.

“Oh, you know all about it, no doubt, dear—about Dr. Harper, who I always thought such a dear, good man, and Mrs. Harvey.”

“Dr. Harper and Mrs. Harvey! I've heard nothing,” said Miss Mell.

“You don't say so, my dear! I'm so grieved I said one word about it. I made sure you knew it all. You know I never talk about such things, never, never; but, oh! it is the saddest, saddest thing I've heard for a long, long time; though I always knew that that Mrs. Harvey was not a good woman. I said so long ago—at the time she left our chapel for page: 48 the church. Mrs. Lovedy was nursing her when her first boy was born, and she told me things, dear, dreadful things; she said—” and there followed the relation, in minutest detail, of things such as I had not even dreamed of, whose hideous shadow had never yet been thrown across my young life. From my lonely African home I had brought an ignorance of evil (and of that which, holy and pure in itself, man's folly has made so) that might have been thought strange in a child of six years. Much that had been cause of vague speculation and wonder was made clear to me that night, and I was wretched; for, alas! is it not the old, old story—that the tree of knowledge is the tree of pain, and that, “In the day wherein thou eatest thou shalt surely die” stand written on every fruit of the wonderful tree?

The gentlemen came in after a time to say good-night, and I slipped off the sofa and went to my own little room, for I did not feel in the mood to be spoken to by anyone.

When I got there, it somehow seemed that all was changed; nothing looked as it used to look; the very light did not produce its old effect when it shone on the white bed curtains; and my beautiful bunch of roses told quite a different tale from that which it had whispered in the morning. I felt sour and bitter, and I took the poor bunch I had gathered with such care and flung it out of the window; then I partly undressed and sat down upon the floor and page: 49 set my candle down opposite me. It did me good to look at its wicked red flame flicker and flare. Before that night I had often felt sympathy with my candle; but then it had seemed to me a poor soul always striving to grow higher, and never succeeding; now it looked red and bad, like the new world that had been opened to me. This was a wretched earth, and perhaps, after all, there was a place of endless sin and therefore of endless pain; it would only be the world a little more worldly, I thought.

Aunt Margaret came in to wish me good night just then; she had a crimson wrapper over her head, so I knew she had just returned from the beach. She looked more beautiful than ever and happier than I had ever seen her; but she seemed to have changed, just like the roses and the light.

“I thought I should find you in bed,” she said, stooping down over me. “Which are you studying—your little bare toes or the candle?”

“Neither,” I said; “but I wish I was not a woman. I hate women; they are horrible and disgusting, and I wish I had never been born rather than to be one.”

“Why, darling, what is the matter now? I am very glad I am a woman; it is so sweet”; and a soft smile played round her mouth as she spoke.

“Did you like the revival meeting this evening?” she asked me after a pause.

“No. It was horrible. I am never going to another,” I answered, briefly.

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“Oh yes, you will. You will make papa so angry if you do not.”

“I can't help it,” I answered. “There are some places that make one wicked, and it's not right to go to them. I feel tonight as if everyone in the world were a hypocrite, and I shall be one too, if I go to these places just for the sake of pleasing some one else—as bad as Miss Mell and Mrs. Goodman.

“You are tired tonight, darling; tomorrow things will look brighter to your poor little eyes. You have sat up too late. Good night, sweet;” and she went out and I was left alone with my red light. I soon got chilly and sleepy and crept into bed.

I remember that day because, first, on it the joy and peace I had lived in for two years began to break; because on it I first entered the shadow of that cloud in whose darkness I was to walk for years, hoping nothing, believing nothing, trusting nothing.