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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 358



“Vat jou goed en trek, Ferreira, Vat jou goed en trek; Swaar dra, swaar dra...” 1 whistled the swell nigger next morning as he walked, switching his cane, in the direction of Undine's tent.

Generally she rose early, but this morning she was sleeping late and so heavily that he had to knock two or three times at the tent pole before she came to unbutton the sail.

“Do you want any needlework?” asked the nigger, touching his hat quite respectfully, for, even with a salary of six pounds a month, five shillings are not to be despised.

Undine said she wanted no work.

The nigger looked disappointed. He had hoped she would take the work, and show as great an

1 “Take your things and go, Ferreira, Take your things and go; Heavy to carry, heavy to carry...” These words are from the Afrikaans folk-song (lied) “Jannie met die hoepelbeen, Ferreira” (Johnny with the bandy leg, Ferreira)—perhaps the best known folk-song in South Africa. Ferreira is a not uncommon Afrikaner surname.

page: 359 objection to accepting payment for black skirts as for ironing shirts.

“You see, my master died last night, and Mrs. Blair wants her mourning quickly. Don't you think, if I was to bring some stuff now, you would be able to do it for her?”

There was no doubt today about the ironing-woman's daftness. She took no notice of his question, but said, after a pause, “What did your master die of?”

“Well, you see,” replied the nigger, resting his hand on the head of his cane and leaning elegantly forward, “I don't just rightly know. He came here just to have a look at everything, and he took ill, something wrong inside, and the doctors they won't let him travel; and this six months he's been lying here, and they've been saying he was going to die, but he never did till last night.”

Having got so far, the nigger turned round and looked across the road to see what it might be the ironing-woman saw that made her eyes look so strange. He could see nothing but just a blade or two of grass which had not yet been trodden down and which were heavy with the morning dew; so he looked at her again.

“When are they going to bury him?”

“Tomorrow morning. They've put him in a house in the yard; for Mrs. Blair she's frightened of ghosts.”

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There was nothing to be gained by wasting more words over her just now, so the nigger resumed his “Swaar dra, swaar dra,” and, without touching his hat, turned away and walked jauntily whistling down the road.

Undine stood in the doorway and looked after him. There were sparrows hopping about at the tent-side, picking up crumbs and insects; and diggers passed with their sleeves rolled up above their elbows, walking briskly, whistling, some of them, for the morning air was fresh and made them feel that life, though it might mean small finds and hard work, was a pleasant thing and worth the having. Some of her children die every day, and Nature might go about forever in deep weeds and mourning if she took the trouble to lament for them; so she goes on smiling, though the best loved and the dearest have just gone—smiling, smiling, when our hearts are breaking. Why should the sky be clouded and the birds fly home hungry, because in one small tent a man lay stiff and white? Men whom women's hearts had yearned over died just so every week, and the world rocked on the same.

Undine slept heavily all day, a heavy sleep but troubled by many dreams; and when she woke the sun had long set. She went out to the barrel that stood at the back of the tent, and drained the last drop of water into the mug. She was thirsty, parched with thirst, but she felt no hunger. The slice of page: 361 bread, very dry now, still lay upon the box unfinished.

She sat down on the side of her bed and held her head between her hands and tried to think, but her brain seemed very numb. After about an hour she stood up and went out, taking the road by which she had come yesterday evening. It was very dark, but she knew her way well.

The Compound was very quiet tonight. There was no one on the veranda, no light in the house. Only in the little tent at the back there was a light visible, and presently two men came out. The night was still and, though they spoke low, she could hear every word that passed:

“Put the candle and matches down, Jack, just there inside the door and button it down tight,” said the first man. “I wonder they like leaving it alone like this without a soul in the place. Dogs might get in.”

“No fear of that while this dog lies here,” said the second. “If I was not with you, I expect you'd rather be pretty near anywhere than here; he'd think no more of tearing you than of growling, if you tried to go in there alone; he don't half like it as it is, for all that I've had the feeding of the beggar for the last six months. Down, Prince, down!”

The men passed close to where Undine stood.

“I tell you what, Jack,” said the first, “that coffin was damned heavy. My shoulders ache.”

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“Charge it all in the bill,” said the second with a laugh:

“Ten little nigger boys Fiddling over wine; One got so jolly drunk, And then there were nine, nine, nine.”

Then they went out at the gate, and the Compound was silent once more.

By and by Undine went round and opened the gate and walked in.

“Prince, Prince, old boy,” she called softly; for Prince had risen to his feet and uttered a low growl at the sound of approaching footsteps. “Prince, have you quite forgotten me?”

The dog did not leave his post, but when she came close to him he laid his head against her knee.

“Prince, Prince! Oh, Prince!”

He seemed to understand her, for he uttered a long low growl, and they crouched down together at the entrance. Is he listening for the sound of his master's breathing in the quiet tent? Or is it only one who remembers how they two waited and listened, long ago?

Only the heavy breathing of the dog and the quick low breath of the woman break the stillness and are heard loud and clear in the quiet night; but in the tent, in the tent, there is deadly stillness.

It was near midnight now, and in the street passenger-carts rumbled past, bearing home Toit's Pan page: 363 visitors from the fast-closing houses of amusement.

Now she stood up and loosened the lower buttons that fastened down the canvas door. Stooping low, she went in, and the dog followed her, lying down close to the doorway and uttering a low short howl. Then it was quite silent in the tent, and very dark. Feeling her way along its side, her fingers touched at last the cold back of a chair, but that was not what she looked for; then the edge of a small table; then something lower than the table, long and narrow but with nothing inside. She felt that it was empty, so she moved on softly. Her hand was on the iron bedpost, then on the smooth sheet, and then on something cold—O, God—how cold!

She took the sheet down off his face, and the cheek of the living woman was pressed close to the cold face of the dead man. In his ear she whispered the wild words of love that to the living she would never utter—wild passionate words, the outpourings of a life's crushed-out love, the breaking forth of a fiercely suppressed passion. And the dead man lies so still; he does not send her from him; he does not silence her; he understands her now; he loves her now. She will see his face once more before it goes, and then she will creep close to him, and lie there, and never leave him.

In its place near the door she found the glass candlestick and matches, and when she had struck a light she came and stood with it in her hand at the page: 364 bed's foot till her eyes had grown accustomed to it; then she looked up.

It was a calm white face that lay there above the sternly folded arms—a calm white face with the old smile, half scornful, half defiant, on the delicate arched lips.

The old face! What use to cry aloud to it! Mad, mad, and fool! Was there room in those sternly folded arms for her! He had lived alone and self-sufficient; he had died alone. There was no room for her now.

With a cry, as of one whose last hope has passed away, she let the light fall upon the floor, and the glass broke into a thousand fragments. But she stayed at the bed's foot till the grey light glimmered through the canvas. Then she crept out and left him.

A few hours afterwards, when all New Rush was astir again, the young wife came in to see her husband for the last time. She had never looked so lovely as that day in her flowing crape, with the great tears of fear in her baby eyes when they told her to stoop down and kiss him.

“I cannot, I cannot,” she cried; “I am so afraid.” And as she turned to go out, the trailing crape rolled the broken glass upon the floor.

That was all that told of last night's watch.