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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
page: 154
page: 155



HOW white, how white and dazzling, that road upon the hillside lay!

All day she sat at the window, watching it. In the dusk, when no other eye could mark it, she saw it winding in the dimness. All night in her dreams it lay before her, in its white aching emptiness.

How slowly the chill weeks crawled over her—two, four, six, eight. Still she watched it till the colour faded from her cheeks and the bright restless light grew strong in her eyes. Her old grandmother would lay her work aside and, standing behind her, would stroke her hair softly with her old withered hands and say, “You are not well my child; you are lonely; the place is too quiet for you; a young life like yours should not be buried away here.”

And Undine would answer nothing, and sit watching, only she knew for what.

The snow had vanished and the road lay, a white chalky line between the brown fields; only now and then a farmer's cart or a labourer from the next village would pass along it.

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“Why do you never sit by the fire? It is so cold and cheerless at the window, and there is nothing to be seen,” the old woman would say. But still she sat there, looking out and stitching away always at delicate white muslins with pink bows and dreamy blue and white stuffs, which the old woman thought made her look like an angel when she tried them on.

“The child has changed,” she would say to herself, as she sat knitting and dozing in the firelight. “She never reads now and thinks only of dress and music; but I suppose it is natural; the young will be young.”

The winter went early that year, and the first signs of spring were showing themselves. Undine did not count the days any more; she did not reason or ask herself any questions; she only waited, waited.

One day she saw a boy coming down the road. It was quite midday and the sun was shining with an almost summer-like warmth. She sat there with her hands folded in her lap, looking at him yet not seeing him till he came up to the open window and put a letter in her hand.

She started up and passed out through the next room, where her grandmother sat knitting in the sunshine of the opened door.

“What is it? What has happened?” asked the old woman; but Undine only hurried past her with the letter pressed tight in both hands against her breast.

Through the long leafless garden she passed, page: 157 where the soft buds were just beginning to swell under the brown bark, through the rough uneven meadow beyond, and sat down at the side of the little cozy river that crept slowly between its muddy reedy banks. She sat long looking at the paper in her hands, with its great red seal; then she tore it open.

What that letter said she never could remember; but she knew, when she had read it, that the dream of her life had vanished, to return no more.

She put the letter whole into her mouth and chewed it fine between her grinding teeth; then she sat still and watched a tiny white feather that lay upon the muddy water bobbing up and down, up and down. Her mind seemed a perfect vacancy but for the thought of that little white feather. She wondered if it would be caught by nodding leaves of the reeds that dipped into the water, or whether it would be stranded on the oozy bank—looked at the little white feather and wondered, and ground the letter fine, fine, between her teeth.

Then, a sudden wild impulse seized her. She must rise—she must run—she must flee—she must go—somewhere, anywhere.

With nothing on her head, sinking ankle deep in the soft mud, she broke through the reeds and bushes and climbed up the steep bank with hands and feet. She did not pause an instant, but ran on to the rugged hill with its winding sheep tracks and sharp page: 158 stones, climbed it, and ran on among the trees and rocks that lay scattered on its summit. She did not seem able to get further; again and yet again she thought she found herself in the same place; and every time she looked up at the great red sun it seemed a great, laughing, cruel human eye, looking down at her from the clear blue sky.

It was on her, on her, wherever she went, that great blood-red eye, and the great brown hill opposite with its white chalk road was like a leering human face that laughed at her, jeered at her, mocked at her; and the stones, and the trees—they had all a hidden sneer about them. “Fool! fool! fool!” they cried. And the blue cloudless sky overhead was so hard and pitiless, like a righteous human soul which has no mercy for the erring. “O sky, blue cloudless sky, have pity, have pity on me!” she cried in her madness; and she threw herself down and lay on a great flat stone in the footpath. Gazing up into the sky's blue depths, she looked straight at the dazzling sun with an unnatural strength of sight.

They drove her madder, madder, the sky, the sun, the earth; till she writhed in her pain, like a trodden worm, on the ground and stones. Then the old feeling came over her again, and she rose up and ran. Her sight seemed to grow dim and blurred at last, and she stumbled and fell again and yet again over the stones and stumps. Bruised, bleeding, she felt nothing, only knew she must run on, on.

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Her grandmother looked out anxiously for her all day, and when it was growing dark that evening, saw her walking slowly up the little garden path, with her head drooping on her breast and her arms hanging heavily at either side.

“Where have you been, my child?” she said, coming out to meet her. “Are you not bitterly cold?”

“No,” said Undine, wearily; and when they entered the little parlour with its cheerful lamp and firelight her grandmother noticed that the bright anxious light she was accustomed to see in her eyes had vanished.

“You look ill, my child,” she said, resting her nervous old hand softly on her arm.

“I am not ill,” Undine said, “only tired. No, I am not hungry; I only want to rest. I am tired, very tired. I want no light, thank you. Good-night.”