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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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VII.

LOVERS

THERE be loves many and gods many; and happy the man whose god and love are one—happy for the time being; most miserable of mortals when the time of revelation comes and at one stroke both god and lover crumble into dust.

Harry's love for Undine had sprung into life, full grown and omnipotent, on that first afternoon when he met her in the woods; and if from that time it could not be said to have grown stronger, it had certainly grown larger, until at last the whole world animate and inanimate, intellectual and moral, was for him but one being, imaged and reflected in a thousand ways. Women's dresses and faces had a new meaning for him; for, though standing afar off, were they not like to hers? And the little wild forest flowers that she loved, were they not emblems of her, as they nodded their innocent white heads at one another? In the books that he read, he paused only when he came to some sentence that might have been hers; and all that was beautiful and sweet sang back her name to him. Dark days came page: 112 for his well-worn bible, and for Beecher's Life Thoughts and a score of brethren who had been his daily study. She never read them; and they were thrown contemptuously onto a lower shelf, to lie there till the wheel of time should have turned.

“Why do you always change the topic when our conversation turns to religious subjects?” Harry asked Undine one day, some four months after their first meeting, as he sat in the low bow-window in front of Cousin Jonathan's house, with his feet resting on the gravelled path outside.

Undine stood behind him, mending a great rent in her dress, made as they had been rambling in the wood together in search of the wild flowers which now, tied into a great bunch, he held in his hand.

“Religion is like love,” answered Undine. “It flourishes best in silence, and is to be felt, not spoken of.”

“I don't mean merely what one may call emotional religious subjects,” he answered, looking up into her face with his great pleading woman's eyes. “You were arguing last night with Mrs. Barnacles about the right or wrong of committing suicide. You never talk with me about such things; your conversation with me is always about the smallest trivialities, such as you talk of to Miss Mell.”

The dark eyes above him looked down on him with that half-pitying, half-scornful look that was so often in them when they rested on him.

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“You must be contented with what you get,” she said.

“But you give me so very little.”

There was something very piteous in the words and in the face that looked up at her which would have cut sore against the hearts of many women; but she cared nothing, only said: “I give light where I get it. When you enlighten my spiritual darkness, I shall try and do as much for yours.”

She had a contemptuous pity for the great boy, with his manly years and his crammed brain, and his passionate love that had made him follow her about for the last four months and serve her like a dog.

“If a bird is only fitted to live among the marshes and reeds in the valley, why tempt it after you to the cold high rocks where the eagle finds a glorious life in the clear cold air?” So Undine said to him, and so thinking, she made no attempt to lead her poor wild duck to the heights for which nature had never fitted him, and where he must die of frost and starvation.

His ideas as to what her views might be were not very clear, but he had a vague notion that she believed in nothing; accordingly he had convinced himself that he also believed in nothing and he had not a little disgusted and very much astonished her by informing her, as he scraped up and down with his boots on the gravel, that he was an infidel, an page: 114 atheist beside whom Hume was orthodox and Voltaire a credulous believer.

“I am sorry to hear it,” was Undine's brief reply.

“Why should you be sorry that I resemble you?” he asked.

“I was not aware that you did so,” she answered. “Will you please tell me the name of that little purple flower? I wish I had all at my finger ends that you have.”

He told her the name of the flower and sat twirling the bunch round in his hands.

Undine stooped down for it, when the rent in her dress was mended.

“I wish you would choose out one flower and give it to me,” he said, never removing his gaze from her face. “May I have one?”

“Of course you may,” said Undine, carelessly holding out the bunch. “They are very pretty; choose which you like.”

“I care nothing about it unless you give it me,” he answered, in a deep passionate voice that always angered her.

“There,” she said, pulling out a great gaudy dandelion, which in spite of his disapproval she had persisted in putting in the bunch.

“How long the shades are growing. I really must go and get tea ready. I'm very discourteous to dismiss you in this way, am I not?” said his angel, and with a laugh fluttered out at the back door.

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“What a poor fool I am!” he said to himself as he sat in the window, looking at the gaudy flower in his hand and feeling a strong inclination to throw it down on the ground and tread on it. In the end, however, he fastened it carefully in his buttonhole and walked home moodily through the wood; for, is it not written on the iron leaf: “Who drinks of Cupid's nectar cup Loves downwards, and not up: He who loves of Gods and men Shall not by the same be loved again.”

It was not often the case (and it showed the discretion of all parties that it was not) that they were alone together, the three Blairs, father and sons. On this evening, however, all three sat in the smoking-room and all three were smoking; for had not Undine said that “A man who does not smoke is as bad as a woman that swears.” It was purgatory before that time to Harry Blair, but he stuck to his pipe with the resolution of a martyr.

There was a blazing fire in the grate, and at one side of it sat Albert Blair; while before it lay a great curly brown-and-white dog with his nose resting on his master's foot.

“You are leaving for London tomorrow, are you not?” he asked his father, who sat on the opposite side of the fire.

“Yes,” was the short rejoinder.

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“Be back at the beginning of summer?”

“Perhaps so. Depends on circumstances.”

“When are you taking yourself off?”

“Don't know.”

The master of the dog had more than one attraction in Greenwood, and a lady who must be kept in hand close by; so, though the place was wretchedly dull, he was in no hurry to leave it.

“There is no need to ask when you go,” said the father, turning with one of his most sinister smiles to his youngest son. “We all know you are booked for Greenwood till a certain individual, despairing of a richer morsel, shall consent to swallow you.”

Harry Blair threw down his pipe, emptying its contents on his trousers and the carpet; and drawing himself up and making a tremendous effort to look dignified and serene, after the manner of his elder brother, he said with trembling lips: “I must beg of you to say no more upon a subject upon which you are in total and absolute ignorance.”

His father laughed, one of his coarse brutal laughs; Albert leaned down to stroke Prince's head and went on curling his moustaches.

“As to my being in total ignorance,” said the father, “I know nearly as much of your little beauty as you do yourself, and infinitely more about woman in general, I fancy. She would think no more of throwing you overboard, along with her books and her flowers, if by doing so she could gain a few page: 117 thousand a year, than I do of knocking the ashes off the end of my cigar.”

Harry Blair rose to his feet, knocking over the tumbler that stood at his elbow. His hot blood, which in schoolboy days had gained for him the highly appropriate sobriquet of “Fire Brain,” was now fairly roused:

“If any man but my father had dared to speak those words,” he said with tremendous passion, “I would have knocked them down his throat; as it is, I will only prove to you that they are a lie, a cowardly dastardly lie.”

His father spoke with a quiet sneer: “You surely forget in whose house you are standing, whose money it is that causes women to look at you! Go and tell your beautiful Undine that your father has turned you out of his house, that you have not a penny in the world, nor the wits to make one; go and tell her that your father would rather see his money rolling in the gutter than that a penny of it should ever come to you. Go and tell her that, and see what her answer will be! Go, go at once.”

There was no passion in the words; they were calmly, sneeringly spoken, as words are that have been lying on the tongue for years, ready for use.

Albert Blair sat lazily looking into the fire. He had known it would come to this some day, and he was glad; it gave him a better chance.

When he looked up his brother had left the room, page: 118 and his father, sitting opposite him, was puffing away vigorously.

“The young dog!” he said after a pause. “He has all his mother's damned impertinence, and he shall learn a lesson or two yet before he dies. Young dog!”

Albert made no remark and a long silence followed, suddenly broken, greatly to his surprise, by a long-continued, deep chuckling laugh proceeding from his father. The Piece-of-perfection for once fairly opened his eyes and stared at him. His respected senior was not generally given to mirth, even of the demoniac order.

“I'll do it,” he chuckled, “I'll do it.” And then, seeming to remember himself, he rose, kicked the dog, and took his departure, leaving his son in undivided possession of the fire and his own meditations.

The next morning was cold and stinging and Undine half repented that she had not stayed at home, as Cousin Jonathan wished, in place of going for her morning walk.

She was just turning homeward when, hearing a step beside her, she looked round, and saw, to her great astonishment, no less a personage than Mr. George Blair, looking redder than usual and almost out of breath.

“I heard this was your favourite early walk,” he began, after wishing her good morning; “and I have walked myself almost out of breath, fearing I page: 119 might miss you. I have long wished for an opportunity of seeing you in private, and at last I have it.”

A pause followed, Undine ransacking her brain to discover some possible cause for his desiring a private interview with her.

“I trust,” he began again, “that you will not be much surprised at what I am about to say. I trust—I feel in fact convinced—that you have understood what the attraction has been which has led me so often to your cousin's house. Though so much your senior in years, I trust, my dear Miss Bock, that you will believe me when I assure you that the affection which I offer you is as ardent and as sincere as that which any younger man might give you, and that, with the will, I have also the power to surround my wife—and such, if you will permit me, I would make you—with everything which can induce to happiness. I cannot ask, I would not desire, an immediate answer. It is of course only right that you should first seek the advice of your friends; but will you not give me some hope, however faint it may be?”

He paused to take breath at the end of his pedantic little oration, while Undine turned on him a face in which nothing but blank astonishment was written; it changed to one of disgust as her eyes rested on the little red-faced creature. He saw the look and had expected to see it. He had had, as he said, great experience in woman, and knew that the handsome penniless young lover must hope to page: 120 carry the day by storm or not at all, that time and reflection are fatal to his success; while the man of fifty, with his bloated face and bags of money, has nothing but these to rely on; and they work for him more surely when he is absent than present.

He took no notice of the look she gave him, but it made him swear in the fatty depths of his inmost heart that, come what would, he should yet have her as his wife. He drew the little scarlet cloak that was slipping back lightly over her shoulder, and fastened it with a brooch formed of diamond-studded flowers which he drew from his pocket.

“Pray do not,” she said, as she wrenched it loose and held it out to him as though it had been a creature which stung her hand. “You do me a great honour,” she said; “but it is quite impossible, quite.”

The old man peered out at her from his rolls of fat, and before turning to leave her said, “Then I had best wish you good morning; but before I do so may I beg of you, my dear Miss Bock, to remember that if ever you should change your mind (and we never know what the future may bring us), I shall not have changed. I leave for London tomorrow,” he continued; “and unless you should write to me, having altered your mind, as I sincerely hope you may do, it may be long before we meet again. Good-bye, Miss Bock.” And without waiting for her reply he turned away and trotted down the lane. Undine stood to watch him as he rolled out of sight.

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“His wife!” She laughed a merry, mocking laugh. “His wife!”

The idea of being any man's wife, of bearing any man's children, was absurd enough to her, to whom a lover was only a reality of the imagination, to be adored, worshipped, and endowed with every perfection mental and physical, but not to be seen, clothed in flesh and blood; just as we dream of heaven, but would laugh to scorn the man who offered to show it us.

Her merry mocking laugh would have sounded almost as derisive had it been Albert Blair, the son and graceful Apollo, instead of George Blair, the father, old and coarse.

“Money,” she said. “What is money?” And kicked with her little foot a rotten stick which lay in her path as contemptuously as she had just thrown from her the wealth that a word might have made hers.

Aye, gold and love, what are they? The great gods that rule us! Gold, god of the body with its lusts and its clay; Love, god of the soul with its fire and its passions. As long as a human being lives shall they, too, not live and struggle and strive for the mastery?—the one ruling over the young and fresh, the other stealing his kingdom from him when he grows old and wrinkled?

“Money! What is money?” said Undine, derisively, for she had seen no deeper into life than love page: 122 songs and dreams could take her; and she wrapped the little scarlet cloak about her and went home light of heart and singing.

She found a letter waiting for her on her bedroom table, but took off her things and stood warming her hands at the fire before opening it.

“Only from poor Harry Blair, about some book or flower,” she said. “Poor” falls naturally before some names; it did before his.

She opened the letter and threw the wrapper into the fire, where it flamed up and turned to ashes, like a young heart devoured by that cruel merciless old God of Love.

At first as she read she looked a little puzzled, then angry, then amused, and finally with a mingling of all three upon her face sat down before the fire with the three great blue sheets in her lap.

It was as passionate an appeal as ever was penned by arrow-smitten man.

For her sake he had given up all—fortune, friends, rank—without a thought and without a regret. She alone could give him that for which alone he longed, that which alone could make him happy. Would she refuse him? No, she could not, would not; he felt sure of that. Nothing else was dear to him on earth, nothing else did he desire. So it ran on. It might be years, he said, before he could make her his wife, but all he yearned page: 123 to know was that her heart was his, her head, her soul.

When Undine got thus far the disgust she felt got into her fingers, which sent the two sheets she had finished into the fire after the wrapper.

“The father asked for my body and offered me gold in return; he asks my soul, spirit and body, and has nothing in the universe to give but a pair of great staring woman's eyes, and a soft brain, crammed to bursting and without a particle of sense in it.” So she said to herself, as she sat tearing up the last page, still unread, and letting the fragments fall in a blue shower at her feet.

Well was it for the hapless penman that he could not see this and was not where he longed to be—lying at her feet; better wandering the woods where now and then, as the wind swayed the leafless branches, he would catch a glimpse of the house which held her.

She had just finished writing him a few very cool and careless lines in answer, when the breakfast bell rang.

“I will say nothing about it to Cousin Jonathan. It must make a man feel wretchedly small to find that another knows his love has been thrown back at him. And I suppose it is a kind of love they both have for me,” she thought as she rose to go.

Passing out at the door, she caught sight of her own face in the little glass that hung on the opposite page: 124 wall, and for the first time that morning a womanly, or in justice let us say a human, feeling of pleasure came to her.

It is so nice to be desired by others, so nice to be beautiful.

When she entered the breakfast-room Cousin Jonathan was standing with his back to the fire, dressed in his everlasting salt-and-pepper coat and plaid trousers.

“I'm a little wretch,” she thought as she looked at him. “Here is a man who has been more than a father to me, and yet whenever I look at him I detest him. And two men have told me this morning that they loved me, and I feel no sorrow that I can't return it as a true-hearted woman would. I'm a heartless creature and horribly hard, there's no doubt of it.”

“You are late this morning,” said Cousin Jonathan. “I suppose you have been writing your answer.”

“To whom?” asked Undine.

“The letter you received was given me to bring. I know all about it,” replied Cousin Jonathan, smiling. He felt no trepidation as to what her answer might be; for, if there was one thing which the little man had studied in the last three years, it was the character of the pink-and-white thing before him. He understood her better than anyone else had ever done, in many ways. He knew of that page: 125 power of passion that lay dead and unawakened beneath the cold, feelingless shell; and he knew as surely that the day would come when it would be called into wild life, not by his hand or that of any Harry Blair, with woman's eyes and soft trusting nature.

“You have still got your red cloak on; I always like you best in it,” he said, as he drew her to him to receive the morning kiss he had given her ever since she came to him.

Undine turned quickly from him and sat down to pour out his tea.

“Where is Cousin Jane this morning?” she asked.

“She is feeling worse than usual and has just sent for the doctor,” he answered as he drew his chair near to the table and to her. “What answer are you going to give a certain individual?” he asked her, after a pause.

“There is only one answer I could give him,” she replied, shortly, as she passed Cousin Jonathan's tea.

“And he gave up everything for you! His father has vowed to have nothing more to do with him; and now all the world will say that you did not marry him because he had no prospects.”

Undine laughed her little scornful laugh.

“All the tongues on earth may clamour; they cannot hurt me,” she answered.

When breakfast was over she dispatched the note, as cold and killing a missive as ever carried destruc- destruction page: 126 tion to aerial castle. She did not love him, never could; would never care to be any man's wife; hoped they would always be good friends; hoped he would find some one to make him happy and love him; so the note ended.

All the morning she sat with Mrs. Barnacles who was really very ill; but when the afternoon came, bringing Miss Mell and Mrs. Goodman, she felt free to take her book and cloak and wander out.

'Twas cheerless and wintry enough, but the air was pleasant and fresh after the close room, and her book engrossed her attention.

Presently she heard voices, but did not look up until she found herself close to Albert Blair. There was no one with him but his dog, so she concluded he must have been speaking to it.

Master and dog made a pretty picture as they stood on a raised bank, with the leaden sky and leafless trees for a background. Both looked so strong and placid, so perfect after their types.

The half-closed eyes caught sight of her in a moment, and their owner came forward to meet her. He made some graceful remarks concerning the weather, inquired after her cousin; and they paused as they walked beneath the very trees where poor Harry had wandered in the morning.

“Here, sir! here!” he called to the dog, who bounded out of the little path in search of some imaginary game. The dog came slowly back and page: 127 rubbed his head against his master's knee, who stooped down to stroke his head.

“How absolutely that dog obeys you,” said Undine, feeling as she always did in the presence of the Piece-of-perfection, at a loss for an idea.

“I make most things which belong to me do that,” he answered, quietly; and as she glanced up at the firm lips beneath the delicate golden moustache she felt it must be so.

How nice it must be to have something you must obey, something you cannot help obeying, whether you wish or not! I never have, she thought.

“Have you had that dog long?” she asked.

“About two years, and he never leaves me; sleeps at the door of my room every night.”

“You would miss him now if you were to lose him,” said Undine, thinking of Socrates.

“Perhaps so,” he replied, carelessly curling the tip of his moustache; “he is an exquisite animal. I have been offered fifty pounds for him, but would not let him go for four times that sum.” Again he stooped and touched the dog's head, who walked close beside him, proud and pleased.

Undine, walking at the other side, envied him.

“Will you allow me the pleasure of carrying your book? It is rather too large a one for you,” he said, noticing the ponderous volume under her arm.

Taking it from her, he glanced at the title, and Undine saw the satirical lines at the corner of his page: 128 mouth and eyes grow deeper; but he only said in his blandest tone, “Rather stiff reading, I should imagine,” and stooped to loosen a dry branch that had caught in her skirt.

Undine wished the book buried under the highest pile of leaves that ever wind collected and left there to rot; though only half an hour before she had been so absorbed by it that Greenwood and the vanities of the present life were banished from her mind.

In the presence of all other men and women she could walk erect. Why in this man's presence was she bowed down, wishing only to do and say what he might approve? Others might ridicule her dress, her manners, her tastes, and she would cling to them with the greater tenacity; but if a line deepened round this man's mouth, she would have given untold treasure to be able to alter or disclaim them.

She was glad when the walk was over—as she always was to get out of his society—and yet, when she was alone before the fire, she took the great book and quietly tore out the leaves one by one and watched them wither and shrivel in the flames.

“I must be going mad,” she said. “What makes me do this, and take such pleasure in doing it?”

Going mad!—of course she was, as we most of us go once in our lives and, thank the gods, not more than once.

Cousin Jonathan was sitting with his wife up- upstairs page: 129 stairs; and when it grew dark Undine built up the fire, blew out the light, and lay down on the sofa.

Presently down the passage came Cousin Jonathan on the way to his study; quietly, for Cousin Jonathan's footfalls were never heard. As he passed he looked in at the door. The red coals cast a ruddy glow over the little room, and the chairs and tables cast long flickering shadows on the brown wall. On the sofa in the corner opposite the fire she lay, just visible in her white dress, with arms clasped over her head and dark eyes fixed on the firelight: not seeing it, but only a tall figure with a rough dog at its side standing on a leaf-strewn bank, with the wintry sky and barren trees for setting.

Long the little figure in its brown coat and plaid trousers stood watching in the doorway; at last it entered and kneeled down softly beside her.

He had loved her so long, he had loved her so passionately, with the best love his nature could give; and tonight this love spoke itself in words as vehement and startling as the passion itself had been long restrained and covered over.

She started up and threw him from her, and, quivering with rage, stood before him.

Still on his knees at her feet, the little man caught her hand and glanced up at the face above him. Even in the dim firelight, the look of intense loathing it wore was visible. It brought him back to reason.

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Dropping the hand, filled with insufferable shame, he crawled from the room almost on hands and knees, as though to hide him in the ground. As he shuffled through the doorway he dropped one green slipper on the mat.

Undine stood as one in a dream and watched the little figure in its plaid trousers and brown coat as it glided swiftly from the room, to pass out of her sight forever. For the little man, in his green plaid, with his angel eyes and beautiful prayers, she was to see no more, though from afar off his shadow might fall on and darken her.

As she passed out at the door she drew up her skirts, lest in passing they might touch the shoe that lay there.

“'Tis a pretty little thing,” soliloquized Albert Blair as he walked home through the wood the same evening; “a pretty little thing, and if she were trained might be good for something. She would not care to be any man's wife, she tells my poor fool of a brother. Well, if these affairs of mine turn out well and I am able to indulge a fancy, who knows? How should you like a certain little eccentricity for a mistress, Prince?” he said, touching with the tips of his fingers the dog's head. “Whether I ever let things go as far as that or not, I may see what I can do with her. Ha, ha! How wrathful the poor boy would be, and the old one too, for I think page: 131 he had his thoughts of her.” And Albert Blair smiled his quiet smile. He had but one smile for friend or foe, for prince and beggar, which meant nothing, told nothing, showed nothing.

The next morning, when Undine had fallen into her first troubled sleep, Mrs. Barnacles' maid came to rouse her.

Cousin Jonathan had been obliged to leave on some unexpected and most important business and might be gone for weeks. He had started before daybreak, and his wife was terribly cut up at his having left her when she was so ill. She seemed worse and wanted to see Undine at once, the girl said.

When Undine entered the room she found the poor invalid in tears. “It was so cruel of him to go away like this,” she said, sobbing; “he knows how that hateful Miss Mell and Mrs. Goodman will talk and say he cares nothing for me, to go away and leave me when I am so ill, and yet he does it.”

Undine tried to console her and felt she could not tell her, as she had determined, that in a few hours she also would leave.

In her cold way she felt pity for the poor woman whose husband cared as little for her as she did for him, who loved nothing, had no friends, and lived in the constant fear and dread of Goodman, Mell, & Co.

“I was thinking,” Undine said, “of going to stay page: 132 with my grandmother. Since my grandfather's death she lives alone and has often asked me to come to her; but I will not leave you till you are better.”

So all that day Undine sat at her bedside.

“Why don't you take a book and read? You could turn up a corner of the blind,” said Mrs. Barnacles.

“I don't care to read today, thank you,” said Undine.

“Why, what on earth has come to you?” said the invalid.

Later on the servant entered, to say that Mr. Albert Blair had called to know how her cousin was.

“Tell him she is no better,” answered Undine.

“But he wanted to see Miss Bock herself,” said the girl.

Undine rose and went downstairs.

He was leaning against the mantelpiece in the parlour when she entered, and his dog lay at his feet.

She looked ill and pale, but he had never liked her aspect so well as he did at that moment.

“Your cousin is seriously ill, I hear,” he said as he came forward to meet her; “and you look as though you had not found much rest last night.”

There was kindly feeling in the words but none in the tone or in the face that looked down at her, only bland politeness.

“I had not to sit up last night; Mr. Barnacles left only early this morning,” answered Undine.

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“So I heard just now. Wouldn't you allow me to send some one to sleep here? You have no man about the place, and it is a long way to the village to the doctor.”

“No, thank you,” said Undine, wondering to find in him such thoughtful kindness. “You are very good, but we require no one.”

“I am sure you will feel very lonely. Won't you let me leave Prince to keep you company?” He noticed that she had stooped to caress the dog.

“He would not stay,” said Undine, smiling.

“He will do just as I tell him,” said his master, touching the dog with his foot. “Here Prince, lie down!”

The dog lay down again on the rug, but watched his master with anxious eyes as he turned to leave; and was only kept from following him by another stern, “Lie down!”

“Poor old fellow! It's very cruel of me to keep you,” said Undine, kneeling down beside him after his master had gone, and burying her face in his rough curls.

“I'm very cruel, but I am so lonely, and I love nothing, nothing at all. I thought I loved my books and nature, but now I find I don't care anything, even for them. O Prince, I wish I were you! I don't want to be loved; I only want to love something.”

The dog looked up at her with his loving, trust- trustful page: 134 ful eyes and tried to lick her face, till she buried it again in his neck.

Albert Blair called again the next day and every day in the dreary two weeks that followed, but he never stayed more than a few minutes, and sometimes did not even come in, only wanting to hear how the invalid was.

Undine as she sat before the fire, not caring to read or work, counted the slow hours as they passed, for they brought his coming nearer.

Prince stayed with her always. She had thought never to love another animal again when Socrates died; but our hearts are often larger than our wills, and the great curly dog had grown to be almost what the brown-eyed monkey had been to her in other days.

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