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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 50
page: 51

III.

THE MAN WITH THE MOUTH

AS AUNT MARGARET had said, things looked brighter in the morning—the beautiful morning that throws its veil of misty light over the great ugly truths which, in all their hideous nakedness, have stood staring us in the eyes and riding us on the breast all night.

Undine, as soon as she was dressed, ran down to the beach; there the tiny waves danced laughing on the sides of the big ones, which in their turn chased and overtook one another, tossing their heads high into the sunny air and turning to white foam, or making a mad dash for the land and dying away in laughing ripples on the sand.

On such a morning, on this side of twenty, with no ghosts to haunt one and come in between the happy sunshine and the eyes, who would not forget that there are such things as revival meetings, and good people who always say one thing and mean another, and jealous old maids and unfaithful wives, and dry hippopotamus-hide-like old men? Who would not forget that underneath this green, laugh- laughing page: 52 ing, merry old world lies fire and brimstone, into which a fall from any rock may send one in a moment? Undine forgot this and everything, and grew at last as wild as the dancing waves. She had brought poor George Macdonald with her for company, but now she threw him down upon the sand, where the waves caught him and made fine sport of his Unspoken Sermons and almost ran away with them; while she leapt from rock to rock, and finally pulled off her shoes and stockings, the better to keep her footing and capture the queer little beings which every wave left behind it in the rocky hollows.

She was very busily securing an extraordinary little monster, with a multiplicity of tails and feelers, and, with her head some two feet lower than her feet, was in no small danger of having an unexpected bath in the shallow pool, when she heard a voice at her elbow.

Rising to her feet with some difficulty and throwing back the wild hair from her eyes, she saw, standing beside her none other than the man with the green-plaid trousers and the mouth—Cousin Jonathan.

He asked what she was looking for; and when he understood very soon captured the queer little fish.

The presence of a second person had in an instant taken all the exhilaration and life out of the morning and brought her back to the disagreeable human page: 53 world, in which wild hair, wet clothes, and bare feet were terribly disgraceful things. She felt conscience-stricken and looked down into the little pool, wishing she were one of the little fishes swimming there.

Cousin Jonathan held out the fish he had just caught with one hand; in the other he had poor George Macdonald, looking almost as wet and disreputable as its mistress.

“I find your name in this book, so I suppose you must have dropped it,” he said as he gave it to her. “The waves were very nearly stealing it, as I fear they may you one of these days, if you continue such a very zealous little naturalist.”

“I'm not a naturalist; I don't know anything about fishes or about anything else,” stammered Undine, hardly knowing what she said.

Cousin Jonathan smiled, not an unpleasant smile of ridicule, but one of quiet amusement.

“They say, when we know our own deficiencies they are half rectified. You would like to know all about a strange little fellow like this, would you not?”

“I would like to know something about him,” she answered, the kind, quiet manner of her companion already beginning to set her at her ease. “When I was at home I used to try and learn a little about plants and insects, but I never had anyone to help me and I had not the right books.”

“Perhaps I could help you a little,” he said; “at page: 54 least I am sure I could, with books; but if you do not wish to study them, what makes you take such trouble to catch them?”

“I don't know,” said Undine, “but I never see anything beautiful without wanting to have it, especially if it's very hard to get. It's not beautiful now,” she said, turning over the poor little fish in her hand.

“I never can see some beautiful things without wishing for them,” he said, and when he spoke those words he spoke the truth.

He helped her over the rocks, with that respectful kindness with which even little children like to be treated; and, when they reached the beach, sat down beside her and let his talk wander on, from a description of the nature and habits of the little creature in her hand to that wonderland which the microscope makes visible; and Undine sat and listened till she forgot his mouth and forgot even her own bare toes.

“We must go home to breakfast,” he said at last, and Undine went in search of her shoes and stockings. Cousin Jonathan never forgot when it was time for a meal.

On their walk home he changed the conversation and tried to draw her out; for the study of character pleased him, and he felt attracted by the queer, babyish, womanish creature. She was an orphan, too, and almost friendless, and he pitied her. More- Moreover page: 55 over, had she not looked lovely as she stood there on the rocks with the hot blood in her cheeks and her exquisite little feet clinging to the rough stones. Cousin Jonathan liked beautiful things—of the feminine gender.

Undine as she trotted beside him had little idea that he or anyone else could see anything in her to admire; but with a woman's quick perception she felt intuitively that whatever she might say, it was all right, it would be well received; and accordingly her ideas and words flowed forth in such a stream as would have astonished anyone who knew her as the shy awkward child in whose throat even yes and no seemed usually to stick.

Undine passed the day almost entirely in Cousin Jonathan's society. Aunt Margaret was busy, and when she had time to spare was with Frank, who was returning to college the next day. In the evening Cousin Jonathan left, for his wife was an invalid and he could never be from home long. At parting he told Undine that he would send her books and that, in return, she was to write and tell him what she thought of them. When he walked down the garden path, she stood looking after him and feeling almost as though an old friend were going.

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