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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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EVERY house has its smoky chimney, its draughty room, its creaky door; every life its own haunting shadows; and every state of life its own small troubles. It may be, when we arrive in a new place or enter upon altered circumstances, the sky is all serenely blue above us; but 'tis never long before the discovering eye perceives the tiny cloud—the cloud on the horizon, at first no bigger than a man's hand, which, growing greater and never quite dissolving, hangs over us, forever ready to rain sorrows on our heads. The direction from which her storms were to arise was soon made clear to Undine. After Cousin Jonathan left she took her work and sat down at one end of the pantry dresser where Aunt Margaret was busy making cakes for tea. Every now and then Aunt Margaret looked down at Undine and wondered what was knitting her brow and making her little hands work away with such desperate energy.

Undine herself could hardly have traced the gyration of the thoughts that were tossing in her own page: 57 small head, but the result was an unalterable determination that she would go to chapel no more. It was her duty, yet she could not go, she thought; and wondered wearily if she were always to be afflicted with senses of duty driving her into paths where no one else would or could walk.

The Goodmans and Miss Mell had been asked out to tea, so there were none but the family round the table that evening.

“You must make haste,” said Mr. Roch, “and get your tea done; the meeting begins in three-quarters of an hour.”

“You must take care to wrap yourself up warmly,” said the grandmother; “you are not accustomed to our climate yet.”

“I am not going,” said Undine.

“What do you say?” asked her grandmother, in whose throat the words stuck so fast that not even Frank, who sat next her, could hear them.

“I am not going to the meeting this evening,” she answered, staring very hard at her plate as she spoke.

“Do you feel ill tonight, dear? You look very pale,” said Aunt Margaret.

“I am quite well, thank you; but I would rather not go tonight.”

“I wish all my household to be there,” said the dried hide, straightening and elongating himself in his seat.

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“Perhaps she wishes to stay with Frank, as it is the last evening,” said the poor nervous little grandmother in an apologetic little whisper.

“Frank is going with Margaret,” said the dried hide, with his leathery, intonationless voice. It sounded so terrible to Undine and filled her with such tremblings, that the brown Wesleys and Fletchers in the little bookcase behind her grandfather seemed to go up to the ceiling and come slowly down to the floor, and she wondered if everyone in the room could not hear her heart beat.

“I would rather not go, I don't mind staying alone at all,” she said at last.

“Why do you not wish to go?” said her grandfather, fixing his cold eyes upon her.

“I don't think it is—I mean—I don't get any good from going, and, I—would—rather—stay—please.” Her voice had almost died away as she spoke the last words.

“Why do you not wish to go?” repeated her grandfather in his usual calm voice.

The blood came back to Undine's cheek, and with it her spirit rose.

“Because it would be wicked of me,” she said, and then, feeling that anything would be better than the silence that ensued, she went on, “I can't go and pretend to be serving God when all—”

“Be silent,” said her grandfather. “Little children who act in this manner should be whipped and page: 59 taught how to behave themselves. It is a pity you are not a few years younger, Undine.”

The child looked up at him, with eyes almost blinded by rage and hatred, and trembling in every limb; then suddenly there came to her a thought—the thought of One who bore all things in meekness, wrongs in silence, who returned cruelty with acts of mercy, and the hatred of evil with the love of a god. Through long years of ceaseless dreaming he had become to her no vague shadowy existence of the long past, but a present living reality, ever aiding and ever sympathising, to whose influence were ascribed all her higher thought and better feeling, no matter from what source they arose. She thought of him, and no answer rose to her lips; and in place of the fury only a cold fainting at her heart was left. She sat here so quietly, breaking up into little bits the bread in her plate, that Frank, remembering the Undine of the old African days, gazed at her in astonishment, expecting an outburst. None came; and when her grandfather rose from the table and told her to get ready she quietly went to obey him.

“Conquered,” thought the old man as he put his coat on in the hall; but perhaps he would hardly have thought so could he have seen what was passing in the heart of the conquered. “It is very hard and bitter to have to go after all this, but because it is bitter it must be right to go just this once, at page: 60 least as a punishment to myself.” So she reasoned as she walked beside him on the way to the little Methodist chapel.

The meeting passed for Undine very much as the last had done; only that this evening, on the seat in front of her, sat a tall, gaunt old woman in a black bonnet who from time to time pushed and pulled at the shoulder of the sallow girl who sat next her, in an endeavour to drive her up to the rails every time the invitation was uttered afresh.

“I don't want to go,” the poor creature whispered, drawing back; and she would, Undine thought, have kept her ground had it not been for Mrs. Goodman, who, leaning over the back of the bench, whispered loudly in her ear, “Go up, my dear; go up.”

The girl looked round with a startled expression. It seemed as though all things, above, around, below, were combining to send her “up.” The poor preacher calling from the rails, the prayers hurling anathemas at those who did not accept the invitation, the hand of her companion persistently applying physical force in the direction of salvation, the mysterious voice from the gloomy depths behind urging her upwards: these were forces which she had not strength to resist, and rising slowly she went up.

Undine wondered what she found to tell him when Mr. Goodman's greasy head was bent down over her.

She was the only fruit that evening, but as they page: 61 walked home Mrs. Goodman expressed her joy that the blessed work of Christ had begun and that she had been the humble instrumentality in his hands for beginning it.

“A word in season, my dear Mrs. Jones, a word in season; let us be thankful when the dear Lord allows us to speak a word in season, allows us poor weak voices to speak a word for him.”

Mrs. Jones, whose road lay in the same direction, was accompanying them part of the way. She fully acquiesced, and at parting begged Mrs. Goodman to come and spend the next day with her. Mrs. Goodman was deeply grieved, but the next day they were returning to Greenwood; she would not see more of her dear Mrs. Jones. That lady was, in her turn, deeply grieved at hearing this, and bargained that Sarah Jane and Elizabeth Ann should be sent over to spend a week with her.

Mrs. Goodman said there was no one in the world with whom she would so gladly have her treasures as her dearest, oldest, friend, and they should surely come. Mrs. Goodman's dearest always was the person whom she happened to be addressing at the moment.

They parted with an affectionate embrace, and Mrs. Goodman was still wiping her cheek from the traces of Mrs. Jones's rather moist salutation when she remarked: “What a dear, good creature Mrs. Jones is! What a pity she should think so much of page: 62 dress at her age; and oh, the adornments of the outer man, what are they, my dear Miss Mell, what are they?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Miss Mell, “yes, indeed.”

“And her poor husband, my dear,” continued Mrs. Goodman, “he can't stand it, my dear, he can't stand it. Did you notice the really superb silk she had on—really superb.”

“I don't think it was silk; it was alpaca,” said Miss Mell.

“Alpaca, my dear! You are quite mistaken. She sat close to the rails, and I was looking at it from the time she came in till we went out, and what a lovely brown it was.”

“I think you are mistaken about the silk,” said Miss Mell, determined not to yield her point.

“I know it's silk, my dear,” replied Mrs. Goodman. “We were in the middle of the first prayer when she came in, and I heard the rustle of the silk as soon as ever she opened the door. I thought, ‘Whoever is that!’ So I just looked up as she went by.”

“Well, it might be,” said Miss Mell. “I know she is as extravagant as she is stingy.”

“Yes, it's a great pity; she is such a dear, good creature,” said Mrs. Goodman, with much earnestness; “it is a sad, sad pity she should be so close: the fly, the fly in the pot of ointment, my dear. Ah! page: 63 that fly!” And so the good souls continued their conversation all the way home.

Arrived there, Undine ran away to her own little room, tonight to study not her candle, but the little brown Testament. She sat reading a little and dreaming a great deal till she had worked herself into a state of beatific felicity; and in this state Aunt Margaret found her when half an hour after she entered the room.

“What is making you so happy?” she asked. “You look like one of the little angels I used to dream about long ago.”

“Nothing,” answered Undine, the golden light fading as quickly from her face as it was from her heart. Heaven on earth is only found in perfect solitude, whether by saint or by poet; and 'tis only a step from the heights of the celestial mountains to the depths of the valleys below.

When Aunt Margaret had left her she began slowly to pull off her boots; and it seemed as though the thought of last night, mingled with today's bitter feelings, all came back to her.

She could just catch the sound of her grandfather's voice as it rose in prayer from the room below; and as she sat there listening, the old hobgoblins of doubt who had been silent for so many months began their dance over her once more. They asked the old unanswerable questions, and new ones, more unanswerable still; and dared even to lay profane hands page: 64 on the words that had just been transporting her into the seventh heaven.

When, however, the prayer below was ended and she had got into bed, she put these suggestions of the evil one from her. She had been reading too much, she had been thinking too much, she had been turning her eyes away from Christ. For a whole month she would touch no book but His word and think no more, and so resolving she fell asleep.

The cloud, the little cloud, at first no larger than a man's hand, waxed greater as the months went by—grew in the end to be so thick and heavy that at last even Aunt Margaret's sunshine was absorbed by it.

Undine went quietly to chapel Sunday after Sunday; and a meek, sweet, quiet child she was, they all said, even if rather dull and stupid. They little knew how those still eyes made food of their every action; how forever they were being hung in the balances and dismissed to have that unchanging “Tekel” written up against them in her mind.

She kept her resolution, and except when at her lessons allowed no book to tempt her but her little brown Testament; that she pored over daily for hours, just as she had done in her little whitewashed sanctum at home.

Was the Testament most to blame, or the inherent wickedness of her own small heart, or the good women with whom she came in contact in her grand- grandfather's page: 65 father's house who, when not in chapel or talking of their neighbours, were thanking the Lord that they were not as their sisters in the mire?

Whichever it might be, at the end of three months this small heathen in a Christian land had made up her mind to go no more to chapel, had come to the conclusion that neither prayer-meetings nor their cousins, the class-meetings, were the gates of the Golden City, but rather the entrances to that other way that, beginning with a short circumbendibus, at last leads one straight to the gates of the city whose walls are of groans and whose pavements of sighs.

Having now a very decided hankering after that Golden City and a very decided impression that she was bound for it, it could not but be that she should eschew those entrances. She did not believe that at the gates of the Golden City stands a great winged angel:

“How old are you?” he asks of the applicant for entrance.

“Thirteen years.”

“Have you always tried to do as your conscience told you? But, no, stay. Had you no one who gave you bread and butter and shoes?”


“Oh, then they kept your conscience. If you only tried to obey them— Well and faithfully done, enter into joy, and sit down on a throne.”

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This was what she did not believe; and so one Sunday morning she came downstairs with a laggard step and slow.

When she got to the door of the breakfast room she ran back again, to pray one prayer more, for it was a terrible mountain she had to cross that morning.

The window of the breakfast room was wide open and the morning light forced its way in, gilding for once the brown Wesleys and Fletchers in the bookshelf, and playing over the little bunch of flowers Aunt Margaret had put beside her plate. She ate little, and before breakfast was half over had strewed the carpet with the leaves of her broken flowers.

Aunt Margaret wondered what was wrong with her little niece, and made vain conjectures; while Undine kept repeating to herself the nice little speech she had prepared to make to her grandfather, which she had even taken the trouble to write down the night before by way of strengthening her memory. She would tell him that she could not go to chapel, because it did her harm; but she would tell it him so humbly and in such terms that even he must forgive her.

But alas for human plans! Every time she essayed to begin, the words stuck fast in her throat; the precious moments sped and breakfast was over without one syllable of her carefully prepared little page: 67 oration's having got further than the region of her heart, where it lay, heavy as lead.

When, however, her grandfather had risen to go, and had passed out into the passage, she also rose quickly and, standing in the doorway, said, “Grandfather.”

He turned round slowly and fixed his cold eyes on her.

“What is the matter?” he asked.

Seek of the dumb an answer, and you will as easily find it as Undine the words of her precious and laboriously concocted little speech. They had hopelessly vanished and gone, and in their place came only these—“I am not going to chapel.”

“I thought I had given you clearly to understand, Undine, on a previous occasion, that I wished you always to go. I allow no disregard of my wishes in this house.” So saying, he turned round to enter his study, but Undine passed him quickly and stood in the doorway before him.

“I am not going,” she said. “It is a wicked cruel world in which one human being has power over another, but you cannot make me do what I think is wrong; and if I go to chapel just because I fear you I shall be a hypocrite like all the others who go there; and I will not. All people who love Christ should keep away from such places, which only bring disgrace and shame upon his name. If he came page: 68 to earth today he would denounce them as he did the pharisees and priests in his day. It's all a mockery and an empty show, and I shall never go again, never, never.”

Her words followed one another in a quick incoherent stream while she pounded away vigorously with one little hand in the palm of the other, till both were furiously red. Her grandfather stood silently looking down at her. In his heart horror and wonder largely mingled with hatred were moving, but his face told nothing. For one moment he felt a wish to strike her, but she scared him, as she had often done her old opponents, by her wild earnestness. He looked at her again, and then, without making an effort to enter his study, walked out the front door, conquered for the first time in his life; conquered by a little child.

And Undine, the conqueror? Alas! Has not the victor's fate been, from the beginning, to lie down and weep? She went out into the garden and dropped down onto the soft green turf among the rose trees.

The sweet Sunday bells were ringing loud; through the clear morning air their music came to her, sounding strangely soft and sweet now that she knew they would never summon her again. For all others they were calling, but they had no word for her; she was one alone, without kinship or fel- fellowship page: 69 lowship among men—so she said in her bitterness. Had she been born with a curse over her head? Would it be so wherever she might go, that her hand should be against every man, and every man's hand against hers? Or was she really so much worse than others that, wherever she might go, love and sympathy would be denied her? Would she have to walk on alone, alone, unloved, misunderstood, right on to the end?

She was sobbing and digging away with her toes into the soft earth when Aunt Margaret came and kneeled down beside her.

“Go away,” said Undine, fiercely. “I am alone. Leave me alone.”

“Undine darling, what have I done to you? What has anyone done to you? Undine, you say you love Christ and are trying to be his child. Don't you think you were wrong to speak as you did just now?”

Undine threw from her the soft hand that was caressing her hair, and said, though more gently, “Please go away”; and Aunt Margaret rose and left her.

Long after, Undine thought, with tears bitterer than those she then shed, of the hand she had thrown from her that morning; but they were bitter enough to the little child—the little child, who had not yet found out, as we all must sooner or later, that the path through life in which each soul must tread is page: 70 single; that no two walk abreast; that where one soul stands, never has stood, and never shall stand, another; but that each man's life and struggle is a mystery, incomprehensible and forever hid from every heart but his own.