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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 143
page: 144

IX.

TRODDEN SNOW

“UNDINE,” said the Piece-of-perfection the next day, as he stood in the doorway putting on his greatcoat, preparatory to taking his departure; “did that little old cousin of yours never try to make love to you?”

“No,” said Undine.

She hated him so, it would have given her such infinite satisfaction to have injured him; yet at the same time it seemed the height of meanness to speak against him—the man who had befriended her. The untruth seemed, in the darkness and confusion of the moment, higher than the truth, and it passed from her lips to bring forth the poisoned fruit which the lie bears, be it spoken for God's glory or the salvation of a soul.

She would have retracted it almost in the same breath, but he answered quickly, “I am glad to hear it; I have a greater respect for my old pedagogue than for almost any man I know, but I had an idea from the way he sometimes spoke of you that he cared rather more for you than a second cousin's husband generally does. I am glad it was fancy. page: 145 I will come again this evening and take you for a walk.” And he was gone.

He was gone, and the untrue word was gone also. She stood in the hall and buried her face in both hands, utterly humiliated. She had told a lie, and told it to him. In other days her sorrow would have been that anything could have tempted her so to demean herself. Now it was all swallowed up in this—it was to him.

She ran out through the little garden with nothing on her head and the sleet and snow falling thick upon her. He was just entering the wood. She paused when she had almost reached him at the thought of the cold light that would fall on her when she presented herself before him in such plight—paused, then turned slowly back to the house.

Evil times had fallen on her, and she asked no more, “Is it right?” but only, “Will he think it right?”

“This afternoon I will tell him,” she said, as she walked, damp and chilly, up the garden path. “I wish he had never asked me.”

It seemed so evil to speak against the man she hated, worse to leave things as they were; yet neither on that afternoon nor on any of the days that followed could she look up into the cold half-closed eyes and say, “I told you a lie.”

The words were always on her tongue, always in page: 146 her heart; but the white face with its wonderful crushing influence over her kept them unspoken.

“I will tell him tomorrow, some day when he loves me better, when he understands me, when I am his little wife,” she would say to herself, whenever he had just left her. But a silent though not less abiding conviction was with her that the day never would come when he would know her better. Her one hour of light had passed that night in the little fire-lit parlour; henceforth, strive as she might to annihilate herself and be only what the man might choose, he would never come near her, they would never meet.

“I am afraid I made a great fool of myself,” soliloquised the Piece-of-perfection, as he walked alone one sharp frosty evening. “No other woman ever made me lose my head, but I do believe the little creature bewitched me that night with her sentimental talk. She loves me, I can do anything with her, I shall make something of her in time; but I was a great fool.”

“What are you doing here?” he asked, coming suddenly upon the subject of his thoughts as she stood below her old tree, wrapped in her little red cloak, with Prince at her side.

The dog rubbed his head against his master's foot; the human dog crept nearer him.

“You know I do not like your wandering about alone,” he said, in the cold, unlover-like tone in page: 147 which he had always spoken to her except on that first evening.

“I would not have come if I had thought you would not like me to,” she said, glancing up into his face.

“I want you to go to church tomorrow,” was his next and rather abrupt remark. “Your cousin is better; you will be able to go, will you not? You will have to go some day; I would rather you began now.

“Yes, I can go,” she answered after a moment's pause.

“'Tis a matter of supreme indifference to me,” continued the Piece-of-perfection, “what you choose to believe; but you must do nothing to make yourself peculiar. There is nothing so hateful in a woman as eccentricity of any description.”

Undine had now heard this remark so often that she had no new reply to make to it, and walked on in silence.

“Were you very busy this morning, Undine?”

“No, not at all,” she said. “Why do you ask me?”

“Because your glove is torn, and I was thinking you might have had some very important matters to attend to which prevented your mending it; but you have a weakness for torn gloves, I fancy.”

“You will never see me with one again,” she said, pulling it off quickly.

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“I hope not,” he answered, quietly. “There are few things which I admire less than a slovenly woman. If a woman cares to retain the affection of those about her, she will always be particular as to her dress.”

“So that others might love her dress, not herself,” said Undine.

“I will care for my wife just as long as she gives me reason to be proud of her,” he replied, coolly.

“Just as you do for your horses and your dog?”

“Yes; I believe I care for that dog as well as for most things; but if he became disobedient or vicious, I should care nothing more about him.”

He spoke gravely; Undine knew he meant what he said; and the life that lay before her seemed to look almost as cheerless and icy as the white frosty world that lay stretched out before her eyes. But, she resolved, I will be all he wishes me; he shall be proud of me, prouder than of all his dogs and horses, she thought, as she clenched and loosened the fingers of her little gloveless hand.

“What causes you always to move your hand in that extraordinary manner whenever you are angry? It is not very pretty, I can assure you.”

“I am not angry; I was only thinking.”

“What?”

“That I will try and be everything you wish. Do you believe me?”

“If I did not believe that you would try and page: 149 that you would also succeed, I would not care to make you my wife,” he replied. “You are a clever little woman and can do anything you wish.”

And Undine felt more exultant at these equivocal words of praise than Lady Edith at his most honeyed compliments.

For some time after that they walked on in silence, only the sound of their footsteps on the hard frozen ground breaking the stillness.

At last she said, very suddenly and very hurriedly: “You know that if ever, at any moment, at any time, you change and would rather not marry me, if it were the very day before our wedding—you must feel quite free—you must tell me so—it will be all right.”

“Are you changing your mind already?” he asked, glancing down at her.

“No, I shall never change,” she answered.

“Nor am I in the habit of retracing my steps, either; but it is certainly better, if one does repent, to do so before it is too late.”

They said no more till they got to the gate of the garden.

“Are you not going to come in and see my cousin today? She is up,” said Undine, and while he sat in Mrs. Barnacles' little sitting-room she ran upstairs.

There was an ominous pulling about the corners of her mouth but she knew if she gave way to it her page: 150 eyes would be red and swollen in two minutes; so she tore off her hat and cloak and, changing her dress, spent at least five minutes in arranging a black-and-red bow in her hair and a few more on her dress. It took her a long time before she was satisfied with her appearance; then she went downstairs.

He was satisfied with it, too, though she could not tell it from his face. Poor little fool! How she did love him! And he felt a kind of pity for her.

It was growing dark and the red lamp in the hall was already lighted when he rose to go. He had wished her good-night, and she was turning to go upstairs when he called her back softly. He uttered her name twice and drew her tenderly to him when she came to his side.

“Be sure you practise this evening; you are my own little darling,” he said, and pressed a long kiss on her lips. “Don't sit up too late, and look as pretty and as sweet when I come tomorrow as you do now. Good-night, my little girl.” And again the firm stern lips with their soft golden moustaches were pressed against hers as he folded her close to him.

It was late the next morning when Undine rose; for it is very pleasant, when one has delicious visions, to be dreaming and dozing in bed on a winter's morning. And her visions were sweet, sweet—though, God knows, they were childish and small enough. She would do her hair so; she would dress page: 151 herself so; she would go to church; she would do this; she would do that. He would kiss her, he would kiss her, as he kissed her last night.

She was sitting on her bed side, as she had been sitting for the last five minutes, with one stocking half on and the other in her hand, when the maid knocked at the door and passed her in a letter.

The hand was his, and it was the first she had ever got from him: she tore it open quickly. It ran:

MY DEAR LITTLE GIRL! I have just heard that my immediate presence in London is indispensable. 'Tis a matter of business and I can't delay. I have a note from Mr. Barnacles in which he tells me that he has been ill, but returns to Greenwood on Monday. As you intend leaving for your grandmother's as soon as he does so, I suppose I shall not find you here when I return. I shall try to run down and see my little girl as soon as I am able.

Yours most affectionately, A. BLAIR.

She threw herself down among the pillows, and after half an hour rose slowly to begin her packing. When it was done she went to Mrs. Barnacles' room, to tell her that she was leaving that evening.

“It's just another of her freaks,” said that lady to Miss Mell, who came to spend the afternoon with her. “No one could have been more kindly treated than she had been here; quite spoiled in fact. There is no telling what she will take into her head next. I wish her grandmother joy of her, I'm sure.”

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“Don't you think Harry Blair's going away so suddenly, without making her an offer, may have something to do with it?” said Miss Mell, looking enormously sharp and green about the eyes.

“I am sure from what I have seen that she could have had him at any time she chose, but—you will not mention it to anyone, I know—his father has quarrelled with him and will have nothing more to do with him.”

“Ah, I understand now,” said Miss Mell; “that will have put my lady out just a little in her pretty little game. A poor penniless boy is not much of a catch. It serves her right. I always thought it shameful, the way she used to walk about everywhere with him quite alone. I wonder she had not more regard for her character than to act as she did. I would die sooner than be on such intimate terms with a man to whom I was not engaged; and even then I think a modest reticence so becoming in a woman.” And Miss Mell drew herself up stiffly in her chair and drew down the corners of her mouth.

“Well, anyhow,” said Mrs. Barnacles, sipping her tea, “I do wish her grandmother joy of her. There is something one can't help liking about the girl, but she is so peculiar and eccentric I shall be glad to have her off my hands.”

“Don't you think she is trying it on in another direction?” inquired Miss Mell, with that wrinkling page: 153 about the mouth which was all she had to show for a smile.

“I don't think she tries it on in any direction; that is just what I complain of,” replied Mrs. Barnacles. “From what I know, I am sure she could have had old Blair if she had chosen. He is much older than she is, but a penniless girl can't be too fastidious, and he is terribly rich.”

“As to her not trying it on, I don't know about that,” said Miss Mell; “I don't think she would have said no, if he had given her a chance of saying yes, but perhaps she has higher game in her eye. What do you think some one comes here once and sometimes twice a day for?”

“Oh, he is polite to all women; his attentions mean nothing. He will look higher when he chooses a wife,” said Mrs. Barnacles. Miss Mell smiled a far-seeing smile and broke her cake.

While they sat talking of her in the little parlour, Undine was standing for the last time under her old tree in the wood. It was leafless and bare now, and great white icicles hung from its branches. The little stream was silent and noiseless.

Next summer the green leaves would break forth on it and the little brook would run laughing past, whispering to the long grasses and white forest flowers, and among its knotted swollen roots the bright-backed beetles and busy ants would run; but she would rest no more among them. “Good-bye page: 154 old tree,” she said, breaking off a bit of its dry frosty bark. “Good-bye, my friend, my dear old friend. I have had such beautiful dreams beneath you; I have had such happy thoughts. They will never come to me any more; my higher life is dead, quite dead; I love only him and I must serve him now. Good-bye.”

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