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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 364
page: 365

XX.

ALONE WITH THE STARS

WATER! Water!

She had slept again all day, and now that she awoke it was dark, and she was parched with thirst and there was no water—none in the barrel, none in the jug; her tongue clave to the roof of her mouth and her veins seemed scorched by liquid fire. She shook the barrel fiercely in her anger and tried to draw the tap out with her teeth. There must be some water in it, if only one could get it; it seemed to her some cruel living thing withholding life from her; and when she found she could do nothing she ran round and round the tent in the vain hope of growing cool. In her delirium it seemed that behind her a whole host of small hideous beings followed, howling—old women with long canine teeth that touched their breasts, old men with hunchbacks and little twinkling eyes which they closed tight and then opened suddenly: before, behind, they followed her; at every side they pressed her; and her thirst grew greater, till her tongue refused to move and keep them off by words.

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“Water, water, water!” was all she could murmur. And at last, as if in answer to her cry, water came. The great clouds that had made the night so dark burst, and the great torrent poured down on the earth. In an instant the heavy canvas sails were drenched, and she knelt down eagerly, holding them in both hands and sucking them. Then she lay down and let the rain fall on her till the fever left her and a great shivering seized her.

She went into her tent and climbed into the box, but her hands seemed powerless to undo her wet clothes, so she drew the blanket over her and lay there till morning.

“Mother,” said the children of the Dutchwoman opposite—“mother, perhaps some wicked man has been to kill the Englishwoman in the little tent. Three days the sail is hanging loose, but we never see her coming out or doing ironing. We think she must be dead.”

“Nonsense!” said the mother. “Don't you have anything to do with her; she's a bad woman.”

“How do you know that?” asked her husband, who sat at the door, smoking his pipe.

“Because I asked her the other day if the man who lived with her was her husband, and she said no. And I asked her if he was any relation of hers, and she said no. So she must be bad,” said the wife.

Nevertheless, when her work was done, curiosity page: 367 led the dame over to the Englishwoman's tent. She looked in at the door and at first thought there was nothing but the three packing-cases in the tent; then, in the farthest of these, which lay bottom downwards, she noticed the purple blanket move, and went up to it.

“You are very sick,” said the Dutchwoman in English, better than Boers generally speak.

Undine opened her eyes, but did not answer.

“You are very sick,” repeated the Dutchwoman. “What is your name?”

“Undine, Undine Bock,” said Undine, slowly, as though puzzled to remember what it really was, and going back to the old name of her childhood.

“Great heavens!” said the Dutchwoman. “Do you remember me—Sannie Muller?”

“Yes,” said Undine; but her eyes had closed again.

“Can I do anything for you?” Sannie asked with some real kindness in her voice, as the memory came to her of the little schoolmate who, in company with her monkey, had been first and foremost in all evil and forever in disgrace.

“No, thank you,” said Undine.

But the woman remained sitting by her till it grew dark; then she lit a candle and stood at her side, saying as she did so: “I will come again during the night and see you.”

“Mother,” asked the little child who had been page: 368 waiting for her in the road, as she trotted along at her side, “is the Englishwoman very sick?”

“Yes,” said the mother. “She will be dead in the morning.”

The Dutchwoman had worked hard all day, and when once she fell asleep she did not awake.

But the little tent had another visitor that night.

Not long after the Dutchwoman left, a great, rough curly head pushed itself in at the door, sniffed for a moment, and then four black paws carried it up to the side of the box. Undine was roused by a soft warm touch on her hand and when she opened her eyes the rough old face was close above hers, looking down at her. Her mind was too confused and dull for his presence there to cause her even the vaguest wonder. She only moved her fingers feebly and called his name, “Prince, Prince.”

He stepped over the low side of the packing-case and lay down across her feet, with his head turned to one side so that he could watch her as he lay there.

A very quiet sleep followed, and Undine did not know when the candle dropped into the bottle, or when Prince moved higher up so that his head rested on her breast. She knew nothing till she woke at one o'clock. Then she raised herself a little on her elbow, looked round, and fell back heavily again on her pillow.

The racking pain, the fever, the dull confusion page: 369 of brain, all had vanished. Free from pain, calm and clear as she had never felt before, she lay there, yet cold, strangely cold. What did it mean, this strange feeling? She lay wondering, thinking, with her hands folded on the dog's black head. Then the truth came to her suddenly.

Death—only that, nothing more. What she had longed and prayed for; what she had looked for in the muddy pool; what she had sighed for in days of emptiness—it had come at last.

Again she raised herself and again fell back heavily upon the pillow. “Not death, not death!” she said, “not death!—anything else—death is too horrible and I, I am so young, so young to die!”

What was the use of crying out! She only grew stiffer and colder and her breath came slow and heavy in the closed tent. She would leave it and go out into the starlight, she would be braver there. The great horror that was upon her gave her strength, and she pushed the dog from her and crept slowly over the side of the low box. There she lay long, and then again, inch by inch, crawling on hands and knees, she reached the doorway. The skirting that crossed it, three inches high, was hard to pass, and again she lay still; but when she turned her head and caught sight of clear starlight outside, she crept on once more. Still on her hands and knees, and falling sometimes with her face into the page: 370 dust, she gained at last one of the low gravel-heaps 1 and lay down on its side.

She looked up at the old stars that she had looked up to and loved from her childhood as other men love their friends of flesh and blood—the dear old stars that had shed their light on the thatched roofs and stone walls of the old farm on the Karoo; that had looked in at the window of the little whitewashed room and on the leaves of the small brown Testament and the little child who cried and prayed there; the same and yet, tonight, looking so strange and new to her. Over the tumult and agony that reigned within, they spoke a great peace, and she lay still and watched them.

'Twas one of the gorgeous nights when the sky, shooting light from a million points, overwhelms and silences us; and the little circle of our life, that has seemed to fill all creation, sinks to its proper size—a shadow, a breath of wind that, being or not being, matters not.

High over her head was one great blue star that gave a steady and unflickering light. At this she looked with dark wide-open eyes till it seemed to speak to her as clearly as the priest speaks who stands at the bedside of the dying with bread and wine, reproof and blessing, whereby he hopes to help the soul in its last struggles among the waters.

“Is death so horrible and ghastly to you?” said


1Débris.

page: 371 the star, “so ghastly that even the pain and suffering and despair that are in life grow beautiful in your eyes? I am only your brother,” said the star, “a few million years older than you, and I know nothing; but I have seen some things—a few. I have seen the sun pour forth his light and heat as a great heart pours its life-blood for others. I have seen it fall on a world dead and silent, and awake it; till in place of death there was life, and for silence sound and ceaseless change. I have seen a world find birth through that light, even those strange and tiny creatures 1 who deep at the floor of the sea have formed their graves and a new land; the waves have rolled back from it and the land that is built from their skeletons has become tree and grass and a million forms of life; on these other creatures have lived; and these again have died that others might have life; and at last man has come, to bring one of whom from the shapeless germ in which he lies plants innumerable die, and his very next of kin are sacrified that he may grow and be. I have looked long and carefully,” said the star, “and I have seen that the thing which you call death is the father of all life and beauty. Till life goes, till blood flows, no higher life can come. There is nothing added to Nature, nothing taken from her. She has only so much in her hand, and with that she must do all things. Would she build better, she must pull down

1Coral.

page: 372 first; would she raise a new world, an old must sink; would she double a flower, the seed of the single must go; and to make a man a million million forms have been and are not.

“Without death there is no change, without change no life; without the shedding of blood no good thing.

“If what you fear in the death that is upon you is not change but a fearful endless silence and annihilation, then take comfort,” said the star; “I have been young and now am old; I have seen great ebbs and great flows, and myriad never-ending changes; but such death as you dream of I have nowhere seen. Nature is too poor to lose, too poor to let rest; her work is not yet done; she has other things to make.

“Mark you well, I know nothing,” said the star; “and what you are, or I am, or the gravel is on which you lie, I cannot tell, and what we mean I cannot tell; only that which I have seen I speak of.

“The stump now burning at your side, it was a great brown lifeless stump an hour or two ago, now a lurid glowing mass shooting out flames and heat, cracking and changing every moment. It will be a small heap of ashes soon, but the light and heat were in it before the match touched it, and I know they are not lost, only doing other work in other forms.

“I have been young and now am old,” said the page: 373 star; “yet if I should say I have seen death as you fear it, I should lie. Change I have seen and desolation, but no death. Take comfort.”

And she was comforted and looked upwards with her arms folded and almost a smile on her lips.

For, as in our hours of sin and weakness, we weep because the great ever-changing, many-waved current on which we find ourselves will flow on just the same when our small wave has spent itself, so, in our moments of sight and strength, a joy, calm and mighty, comes to us when we see that the great current will flow on uninjured, unchanged by our loss, in its deathless progress.

She lay still and was comforted. And what if the star never spoke, and only her own thoughts were thrown back to her! If it be to a bedside with priest, wafer, and book, or to a gravel-heap under the stars, that peace and strength come, are they not the children of the soul, and no outcome of wafer, priest, or star? Though blessed be all three if they can call them forth in the hour of that battle the last and strongest.

She rested till it seemed as though a mist were creeping over the brilliant night sky, and then as though the smoke from the fire passed before her eyes. She raised her hands slowly as though to wave it from her; but it grew darker, and one by one the stars vanished. Then she knew that it was the shadow of death that lay between her and them.

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Slowly she turned away her head, and even in that darkness could see lying between the two great stones the stump, now coal from end to end with blood-red cracks upon its surface.

The cold was growing greater, so she crept a little nearer the coal and lay with her face to it.

Was it because the glowing light, seen through the mist, brought back a night of long ago, that she heard in the dim delicious confusion the voice that had called her so tenderly under the red lamplight in the little hall?

“My little girl, my own little girl—Undine,” it said over and over, and the soft tears of gladness filled her eyes, and in delicious dreamy darkness it seemed as though his arms were close around her.

Presently the moon rose and looked over the ridge of the tent into the little yard among the gravel-heaps. The glowing stump had burnt out and gone to ashes between the great round stones.

Before them, in her little purple print, with her feet crossed and her head resting on one arm, lay Undine.

Her white kappie lay near her and cast a grotesque shadow, like a man's face with long nose and chin; and the light glistened on her soft brown hair.

There was nothing else to be seen in the little yard.

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