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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 70
page: 71

V.

A SUNNY AFTERNOON AND A WILD NIGHT

IT WAS summer again; a dreamy, hazy, delicious summer afternoon. Three sat upon the brow of a small grassy hillock near the beach—Frank, Undine, and Aunt Margaret.

The grass was rich with great golden-eyed flowers, and he picked them as he lay there, to fasten in the golden hair of the woman he loved—long silky yellow hair that hung about her, soft and fleecy as the small white cloud that lay dreaming far away to seaward.

Undine, sitting a little apart with her book, looked up ever and again to watch them; they were pleasant to look at as the blue sky overhead or the green grass and shimmering light below. Every now and then she caught a word of their conversation; they were making little plans for the spending of the long good years that were coming to them, when they two should be always together. At last they called to her: “What shall the colour of the study curtains be—red, green, or yellow?”

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“Blue,” said Undine—“blue, just the colour of the sea where it lies at rest, far away.”

“No, no; not that colour,” Aunt Margaret answered, quickly. “I never did so before, but this afternoon I hate it. Every time I look up and see it, I hate it.”

“Look at that cloud,” said Undine; “when we came 'twas a tiny speck we could hardly see, and now 'tis like a great fairy snow-ship in the sky.” Then a silence fell on all three; but by and by Frank fastened more golden flowers in the yellow hair, and Aunt Margaret's merry laugh was heard mingling with the rippling of the waves and the hum of the brown insects in the grass. Undine sat looking at the picture before her, all green and gold. Surely it must be that in such a world life and love are alone realities, and death and pain are but the fevered dreams of our own minds.

There were withered flowers lying among the grass stalks; there were heavy shadows growing in the valleys; the fairy ship was growing darker every moment and would come with the storm wind and the hellish grin of the lightning, to plough up the smooth face of the sunny sea before morning, but they saw none of those things and sat there smiling in the sunlight.

“Delilah, you are bewitching me,” said Frank at last, as he sprang up from the grass on which he had page: 73 been lying with his head in her lap. “I promised to be at Leeford tonight; must be there, in fact.”

“It's too late now,” said Aunt Margaret, shading her eyes with her hand to look at the sinking sun; “if you walk ever so fast you cannot get there before dark.”

“I shall not walk; I shall hire a boat in the village and two boys, and shall be back again by ten o'clock.”

“It is the last evening, Frank,” she said, turning her bright childish face up to his, “the last for four whole weeks. Be sure you come back.”

He stooped over her and whispered softly for a moment, and then with a good by to Undine sprang down the green slope and over the rocks along the beach.

Just as he was passing out of sight he paused for an instant to look back at them and call out, “Only till ten o'clock, you know, only till ten o'clock.”

The two left rose to go home then.

“Shall I pull the flowers out of your hair?” asked Undine.

“No; I leave them there; I feel like only a little child tonight. Oh, Undine, I hope you will one day be as happy as I am.”

She had reason to be happy, Undine thought; in a few months more he would have finished his studies and was to settle as doctor in Greenwood, and they were to be married; reason enough, but so page: 74 had most women. How glorious it would be when she, too, was one!

Later on in the evening Undine kneeled in the seaward window of Aunt Margaret's room. Aunt Margaret stood behind her with her arms twined round her, and both were looking into the darkness. Except the flash of the distant lightning, nothing was to be seen, nothing to be heard but the faint roll of the thunder and the roar of night wind as it flung the mountains of water it had created against the cliffs or hurried them madly over the rocks.

“It is no use looking out any longer; he will not come tonight, Golden,” said Undine, using, as she often did, his pet name.

“No, no, you do not know him as I do. He would do anything rather than disappoint me,” she answered.

“But the boys, the boys,” said Undine; “they would never venture out on a night like this.”

“Then he would come alone.” The words were said in a calm, measured voice utterly unlike her own; and Undine looked up at the white face above her and out at the darkness, and shuddered.

“What time is it?” Aunt Margaret said at last.

“I don't think it's very late,” said Undine, with a piteous attempt at a smile that faded instantly when she had left the room and was making her way through the sleeping house.

As she stood before the great clock in the hall it page: 75 struck the hours slowly; and then the solemn ticking was renewed. She thought of the things it might once have spoken to her, concerning the bright brown face that had looked back at them from the rocks—the rocks where now the wild water was foaming in the darkness—and was glad that it could speak them no more.

When she got back to the room, Aunt Margaret was kneeling at the side of the chair on which the candle stood, with her two beautiful hands clasped over her head.

“It is just twelve,” whispered Undine as she sat down beside her. “He will not come tonight; it is too late.”

“Too late, too late!” Aunt Margaret hissed the words from between her clinched teeth. “I never prayed for him as I ought, I never kept on praying till I felt God's answer, and now I can do nothing more for him, nothing more. It is what I deserve, it is God's punishment on me for loving a man who mocked His name, who had no faith in Christ; but, Undine, Undine, heaven will be no heaven to me if he is not there. I would give my soul so willingly to reclaim his; I could bear all for him. Pray, Undine, pray. I cannot.”

And Undine prayed—prayed as we pray for that which we are losing, for that for which we fear the day of prayer has almost ended.

“Talk, Undine, talk,” said Aunt Margaret. “If page: 76 you are quiet I cannot bear it.” And Undine talked on, the words of her own sweet dreamy faith—talked on till Aunt Margaret fell asleep with her head in the child's lap. Then at last Undine leaned her forehead against the chair, and slept also.

When she awoke next morning the world was laughing, the sky all blue with not one tell-tale cloud, the hills all green and glittering in the morning light, and the blue sea beyond them rippling in the sunshine, with a smile like the dimpled smile of a beautiful wicked woman after she has broken hearts and sucked the sweetness out of human lives.

Undine, before she was well awake, smiled back at the picture that laughed back at her through the open window; then wondered what this heavy weight about her heart might mean, and remembered all.

Had he come? Where was Aunt Margaret? Glancing round the room, she hurried out to look for her. As she passed her grandfather's door he opened it and called to her:

“Do you know who went out at the front door last night and left it open? I felt the cold wind blowing in, and had to go down and close it, about four o'clock.”

He felt pretty sure the culprit stood before him; no one else in the house was given to wandering out at night, and in the dark. It would only be of a piece with all her other eccentricities, which had page: 77 at last brought him to the conclusion that the child whom he thoroughly detested, yet could not get rid of, was not quite in her right mind.

She gave him no answer to his question, but asked hurriedly, “Has he come?” And seeing from his face that he did not know, she passed on.

Where was Aunt Margaret! Not in the garden, not in the house. Soon everyone was in full search of her except her father, who went into his study to prepare next Sunday's sermon.

She had angered him last night by asking him to send some one over to Leeford to hear if Frank had left. He hated his future son-in-law with a hatred only less perfect than that which he felt for his little granddaughter. A Freethinking child of the devil, he had more than once called him to Aunt Margaret, and he would never have had her had it not been that from his mother he had inherited something.

Gold is like charity; it covers a multitude of sins; it maketh a cloak wherein even Freethinking may array itself, and its nakedness shall not appear.

Two hours later he came out of his study with a troubled look. His wife had been to tell him that Margaret was nowhere to be found, and that one of the boys had returned from Leeford. Frank with the other had started in the boat at eight o'clock the night before, hoping to reach home before the storm broke.

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If there was one thing in the world the dried-hide loved, it was his daughter; and in the search that followed no one looked so anxiously or so earnestly as he.

He had refused to send anyone last night, and she had gone herself, he thought; and so thinking he set out on the road she must have taken. Undine went to search where she knew Aunt Margaret's own heart would have taken her—to the little green hillock where the yellow flowers he had picked lay withered here and there, where she could see the rocks on which he had stood to wish his last goodbye and the placid sunny sea which murmurs on so softly, telling no tales of the beauty and the strength it has devoured.

Undine could not bear to stay near it and hurried back to the house and the dear old rose-filled garden.

Her grandmother met her at the door, crying and wringing her poor weak hands: “Oh, he is dead! Poor Frank is dead! They have found his body, and the boy's that was with him. And my darling, my poor darling, where is she? It will kill her! It will kill her!”

Undine did not stay to mingle tears with her, but passed from room to room like one in a dream, searching where yet she did not hope to find; with the restless moving water ever before her eyes as she wearily closed and opened door after door.

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The door of her own room stood half open, but she only glanced in, and was just leaving it when her ear caught a sound from the corner near the window. There, with the sunlight streaming full over its yellow hair, crouched a naked human figure. The knees were drawn up till the chin rested on them, and one arm was clasped tight round them; the other was stretched out, and one finger pointed to a crack in the boards. The eyebrows were drawn down till the eyes were hardly visible, but they opened slightly every time the mouth twitched nervously to one side or the other.

Undine stood motionless in the doorway and watched it. Had sorrow touched her reason? Was she mad? Or was that really what she looked for—that thing with the faded yellow flowers in its hair?

“Ha-ha-ha!”

'Twas a hellish laugh that filled the room and rang out across the rose trees in the garden. The finger was still pointing to the crack along the boards.

“Ha-ha-ha! There they come—one, two, three; there they come—the devils that have got his soul, hundreds of them, thousands of them. That is the door they took him down, there. I asked God to take me instead, but He would not, and now they have got me too. He used to say there was no God, and no hell, but God will show him now. page: 80 Ha-ha-ha! How they come! Little devils—one, two, three!”

Undine uttered a low cry and dropped down onto her knees beside her.

The yellow thing, with its faded flowers, crouched down lower, crouched till its chin rested on the floor, and its half-closed eyes glanced furtively now on this side now on that. Then springing to its feet, with a cry, it seized Undine with both hands and bore her to the ground. Kneeling on her and putting its lips close to her ear, it hissed forth: “I know you, who you are. You look like Undine; but you are the devil; the devil to whom God gave his soul. I know, I know. You left his body lying there upon the beach, and you tore it with your cruel hands that I might not know it when I found it lying there in the grey dawn: but I knew it, I knew it.” She fixed her teeth in Undine's arm and clasped her to her breast until Undine's cries were smothered and she became unconscious. When those who had heard them entered the room, Undine lay upon the floor insensible, and in the far corner crouched a thing that licked its red lips and cried exultingly as it pointed at her: “I have killed the devil! I have killed the devil! Ha-ha-ha!”

A week after, and Cousin Barnacles had taken Undine to his house in Greenwood.

It is not time which makes old men and women of us. Undine's childhood lay buried in the grave page: 81 upon the hillside where a form which the sea had given up was laid, and in a dark strong house far off where a mad woman grew wilder still if they showed her a bible or a yellow flower.

Ignorant of the world, shy, childish in her manners, yet for her childhood was forever of the past. She would never again dance with naked feet among the rocks and wonder how, in the world of green and gold, men ever sigh and pray for rest beneath its crust. For her, henceforth, the merry laughing children would be you, and grave-eyed men and women, we and us.

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