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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 159
page: 160

XI.

A CLEVER LITTLE MAN AND A POOR LITTLE FOOL

IF THE ploughboy knew how the worm suffers that writhes beneath his foot, surely he would not crush it. If we saw the work of the cruel word, surely we should not utter it. If we could see the light of a life vanish and die out, surely we should be loath to extinguish it. But we never can see, never know, never watch these things; therefore blighting, cursing, and inflicting suffering, we go on our way rejoicing.

Albert Blair was not a cruel man. A man of high principle, the world said. A man to whom no one in trouble ever appealed in vain for help. A man who never gave his horse or dog a blow more than was necessary—a good master, a good man, as the world goes. Yet he felt no sorrow for the young life he had crushed. It had to be done, and he did it—as he beat his dog or discharged his servant when necessary.

He had meant to write to her from London, but important affairs occupied his attention; his specula- speculations page: 161 tions were coming to a bad end—he had no time to think of her.

“I will run down and see her when I go back to Greenwood,” he said. “'Tis a pity, as things seem to be turning out, that I ever let the poor little thing make such a fool of me, but it can't be helped now.”

Lady Edith with her thousands would have mended matters at once, but what was the use of thinking about her?

The first night after his arrival at Greenwood, Cousin Jonathan came to see him. The little man had heard, on his return, of the frequent visits which had been paid during his absence. Passion has eyes, as far-seeing in the dark as love's, and he knew both visitor and visited so well that he soon came to certain very definite conclusions on the matter of these visits. He knew well that a hundred Harry Blairs were not so to be dreaded as one Piece-of-perfection, with his cold eyes and iron will.

It would be hard to say whether the little man started from home that evening with any particularly fiendish purpose in his head, but his heart was fed on by the green-eyed monster and his weak legs trembled and quaked beneath him as he thought of what might be—of what she might have told. Perhaps the reception from his sometime pupil would be a summary dismissal from a boot point. At any day all Greenwood might know that, in place of Jonathan Barnacles the saint, the holy man, and the page: 162 blessed man of God, they had been bowing down at the shrine of a poor sinner, a man of like passions with themselves. For with the exception of one or two benighted individuals, Cousin Jonathan stood highest of the high in the estimation of the Greenwood world. “He is so pure, so calm, so transparent. If there were more Christians like him, all the world would soon become Christian,” one of his admirers was wont to say, when expatiating on his transcendent virtues.

It is a cruel thing they do, who fasten on a man too high a character. 'Tis a small hobgoblin on his shoulder, forever pushing and poking him into the wrong paths, leading more straight along the devil's road than gold, wine, or women. Having committed one action out of keeping with it, he must sin on eternally to make a grave wherein to hide that action.

Cousin Jonathan felt sick at heart as any girl when he knocked at the door and was ushered into the presence of the Piece-of-perfection, who met him just as usual, made him take an armchair, and offered him a cigar.

“You have been ill?” was one of his first remarks, noticing the pale face and troubled look in the usually serene eyes of the little man.

Cousin Jonathan declared he was in perfect health, in the best of spirits; and, after a few more remarks had passed, began to express his gratitude for the page: 163 kind attention shown to his wife and Miss Bock during his absence.

“It was exceedingly kind of you,” he continued, rubbing his hands together as nervously as it was possible for such a very unnervous little animal to do.

“It is quite unnecessary, I assure you,” said the Piece-of-perfection, knocking the ashes from the top of his cigar into the delicate china stand. “You will understand that it is so when I tell you, as perhaps I should have done sooner, that in all probability, e'er very long, Miss Bock will become my wife.”

The little man had a wonderful command over his features, and showed at this announcement no more feeling than that amount of surprise which it was to be expected he would experience.

“You really must excuse me,” said Cousin Jonathan; “but I am amazed, astonished; it is so very, so altogether, unexpected. I—you really must excuse me, but I was under the impression that, if ever I had the honour of looking upon any member of your family as the future husband of my charge, it would be another.”

“I do not imagine Miss Bock ever had any very great regard for my poor brother,” he replied contemptuously, curling the corner of his delicate moustache between his finger and thumb.

“Has she not told you? But of course she will page: 164 have told you more than even I know,” said Cousin Jonathan.

“On what subject?” asked Albert Blair, closing his eyes closer than usual and playing with Prince's ears.

“About this affair with your brother; but of course it is all passed now, and I wish you both every blessing, every happiness,” said Cousin Jonathan, apparently very much affected.

“I always understood from Miss Bock that she was perfectly indifferent to my brother, in fact rather repelled than favoured his addresses. I imagine you must have misunderstood her.”

“Oh, yes, and there can be nothing gained by speaking now over things that are past and gone,” said Cousin Jonathan; “and I cannot tell you how grateful, how relieved, I feel to think that the dear child will be in your care. When she seemed so devotedly attached to your brother, of course I did not like to interfere, but it was, I can assure you—it was a cause of great anxiety to me. If she were my own daughter, I could not feel a greater regard for her welfare; and she is so peculiar, so eccentric, that with all her noble qualities and rich and vigorous intellect she has never been able to get on anywhere.”

The Piece-of-perfection sat passive, so Cousin Jonathan went on.

“It may seem, and I fear was, very selfish on my page: 165 part, but I could not help feeling less concerned at your brother's trouble and departure than I should otherwise have been. It seemed wholly to change her mind, and as things have turned out I am thankful, how thankful I cannot tell you. He was very sincerely attached to her, but he would never have submitted to her tastes and ideas, as it would be absolutely necessary he should if they were to live together. But that is all past now and I cannot tell you how relieved, how thankful, I feel. I have loved her as if she were my own,” said Cousin Jonathan, screwing up the corners of his eyes till they began to look watery.

A long pause followed, then the Piece-of-perfection said, “Perhaps I ought to explain to you that what exists between myself and Miss Bock is not a definite engagement. It is an understanding which either party may bring to an end at any time he or she should wish to do so, and it might be just as well to say nothing on the subject till matters are more definitely arranged.”

“Certainly, certainly, if you wish it,” said Cousin Jonathan; “but I do hope that matters will soon, very soon, be in that condition. I have often feared that she might be tempted for the sake of wealth and position to give herself away to a man who was utterly unworthy of her. She is so young, and therefore it is only natural that she should desire such things, and having also been brought up in circum- circumstances page: 166 stances of almost more than poverty, they necessarily appear all the more alluring to her.”

“I understand that Miss Bock's family, though not wealthy, was a very respectable one. Take another cigar; yours has gone out,” said Albert Blair, passing his case.

“Oh, I know nothing, nothing whatever, against the character of any of her relations. Her father was a connection of my own, and as far as I am aware his family are all well to do. Of her mother I know nothing. He made a great mistake in marrying her, I believe. She was some woman he picked up in London and who married as her second husband some low farmer at the Cape. Her grandfather got her home when her mother died, but she could not get on with them; they did not seem to understand the dear child's little peculiarities and could not appreciate her.”

It would not take more faith and prayer to obtain pardon for one lie than for twenty; and Cousin Jonathan, having told one, found that lies flow as easily as truths if only one is used to them. Cousin Jonathan held great faith in ghosts, but nowadays dead people do not rise out of their graves and come to avenge themselves, be they ever so slandered; and 'tis safe talking in an English smoking-room of an African farmer between whom and yourself there are some thousand miles of sea and a hundred of still more separating Karoo. Her mother had been page: 167 the only daughter of a wealthy London merchant and had been disinherited for marrying beneath her; but does not every man who finds a wife pick her up, and had not her mother taken as her second husband a Cape farmer? He had only spoken the truth judiciously, of course, very judiciously, but only the truth.

“I feel so sure,” he continued, “that you of all men will be able to overlook any small deficiencies in the dear child, when you consider all the adverse circumstances with which she has had to contend. There is something so original and strong, so noble, in her character, that if she were only a little more open she would be almost perfect in my estimate. Not that I mean,” said the little man, apparently recollecting himself and speaking with great earnestness—“not that I mean to say she is not quite truthful, but she is sometimes not quite—so open, as one might expect to find her. Her nature is, I believe, a thoroughly truthful one in every respect, and it is only the effect of early mismanagement. And are we not,” said Cousin Jonathan, falling into his preaching voice, “are we not all of us formed during the first few years of our lives? What is done then, can it ever be undone, ever?”

He seemed lost in thought for some moments, then he said suddenly: “But it is all right now; I feel so rejoiced to think that for the future she will be shielded and cared for better than I could care for page: 168 her. I have felt very anxious about her lately, very anxious; I could not see clearly where the path of duty lay with regard to her.”

“You're a very devil of wickedness or a poor fool of a saint,” thought the Piece-of-perfection as he leaned back in his chair with the lamplight falling full on the inscrutable white face, the lines of which Cousin Jonathan was vainly trying to decipher.

“I may tell Mrs. Barnacles, of—of the understanding, may I not?” he said. “She has been much grieved at Undine's sudden freak of leaving us; and I cannot myself understand how the idea came into her head, unless she thought we were imposing on her by leaving her alone with an invalid on her hands. She never told you if that was her reason for leaving us, I suppose?” inquired the little man, casting a quick furtive glance at the face of his companion.

“No; she told me she was leaving because she was weary of the place and wished for change. You are surely not leaving yet?” for Cousin Jonathan had risen to take his departure.

If you wish to ruin a man's character, if you wish to have your revenge on an enemy, if you wish to blight a man's life because you have done him an injury, be sparing with your words. It is the small drop that falls in between the wine and sugar that poisons the cup.

So Cousin Jonathan, having eyes as far-seeing as page: 169 they were blue and saintly, discovered that it was quite impossible for him to remain any longer, much as he wished to do so. There was a special prayer-meeting in his house that night, and his presence there was indispensable.

People remarked, as they walked home after the meeting, that never before had he prayed with the eloquence and earnestness of that evening for perfect purity, for perfect truth; truth that might challenge, not the dull eye of the world, but the deep-seeing, perceiving eye of conscience; truth in thought, truth in word, truth in deed, Godlike truth, he prayed for with passionate fervour. And let he who will sneer and raise the ever-ready cry of hypocrite. Through a long life free of temptation he had in the main been pure and truthful, as those about him deemed him; but the hour of his trial had come and he had fallen, as the son of the morning fell, to rise no more.

The greatest devil among us has his white spots, and the purest saint has ink-black stains which will be clearly visible if he do not keep his white clothing too tight about him.

When his visitor had left him, Albert Blair paced slowly up and down the room. Was the little man a fool, or a devil? He turned the matter over and over in his mind as he passed slowly from one end to the other, with Prince following close at his heels.

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The poison took its full effect, and early the next morning he started for London. “I will write when there,” he said. “The little schemer quite deserves to be kept waiting, and it gives her more time to forget me. They may say what they like, but I do believe the little devil likes me or at least my prospects.

“I don't know what's come over Miss Undine,” said Nancy, her grandmother's maid, as she stood chatting with her lover over the gate one evening. “When she come first, why, there she'd sit from morning till night, stitch, stitch, stitch, at them lovely white dresses, and staring out of that there window. If we'd not 'a' made her come and eat, I believe she'd just 'a' starved. Well, all of a sudden, just four weeks gone, I went upstairs to make her bed, thinking as how of course she had been up and out hours; and there she was a-sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, never been in bed the whole blessed night, though one could see as she'd been a-laying on it, her dresses and ribbons and all her nice things that she'd been a-working at lying in a pile that high before her.

“‘Nancy,’ says she, sort of strange and quiet like, ‘you can take all these things.’

“‘Lor'! Miss Undine,’ says I, ‘what do you mean?’

“‘You can have them,’ says she; ‘and if you don't page: 171 want them you can burn them,’ says she so quiet like, and walks out of the room with her arms a-hanging down at each side of her—like this—and her head a-lying sort of loose like on her chest, as though she'd gone and got her neck broken; and, Lor'! her back was bent as double as an old woman's. I never see anything like it, 'cept when my poor brother Jim got shot in the side by them horrid poachers and came back the night afore he died, looking just like that.”

“And did you get the dresses?” asked her lover.

“Course I did,” said Nancy, “and other things too. And Miss Undine she just goes on walking about in that 'ere sort of a way. Lor'! and she is queer sometimes; she takes a cloth and begins rubbing down the chairs and things in the parlour. ‘I can do that Miss Undine,’ says I.

“‘No, I like to do it,’ says she, and there she sits a-rubbing at one leg of a chair for five minutes or more, like as if she was in a dream like.

“‘Don't you think that chair is pretty well about polished down now, Miss Undine?’ says I.

“‘Yes,’ she says, and goes on to another. And, Lor' bless me, if she don't go and lie down under them trees in the garden for a whole blessed day sometimes, as still as a corpse. She is just that deep with blossoms when I come to call her in of an evening; and if I did not, why I do believe she would page: 172 lie there till the morning,” said the puzzled Nancy, emphatically.

It was not only Nancy who was puzzled. Her grandmother would watch her wonderingly as for hours she would sit under the great tree that grew before the cottage, gazing vacantly at the soft early grass and the budding hedges. It was no use asking if she were ill; she would only answer, “No, I am well—only tired—rather tired.”

“The flowers of last year, when their stalks grew hollow and empty, fell to the ground, to give place and food to the fresh green shoots of this year; then why must we live on, when we are tired, so tired?” she would ask herself. Sometimes she got out the little wooden box where she kept her papers—little songs and allegories, fairy tales and half-written essays. They had lifted her up to heaven when she wrote them; now they were bits of blue paper, scribbled over and blotted, and she would put them away listlessly without ever looking at them.

One night, in the middle of the night, she woke up. Generally she went to sleep early, and slept heavily till morning, but tonight she woke and lay still, listening to the wind as it moaned around the house. Then before her eyes lay the little river, with its muddy banks, and the great trees knocking their bare branches together over it, and the brown still pool where the little feather had nodded up and down, up and down, on that afternoon.

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It had moved very restlessly, but deep down, at the bottom of the pool, it was very still and restful. The mocking sun with his jeering blood-red eye could never look through to see what lay there.

She was tired, so tired; so she got up slowly and drew on her clothes in the dark. She was turning mechanically to feel for her little crimson cloak that hung behind the door, when, “Why should I spoil it?” she thought. So without wrapping anything around her, she went out into the night wind and the darkness, through the long garden, over the uneven field. She stood at last beside the muddy pool. Overhead the leafless branches rattled their dry joints together, and through the rifts in the cloudy sky a few stray stars cast their uncertain reflection on the water.

It seemed so still and quiet, it seemed to lure her to itself.

“I cannot help it—it is not cowardly—I am too tired—so tired. He does not want me any more. There is nothing in the world, and I am so weary,” she whispered under her breath, as though excusing herself to some unseen judge.

“I shall never trouble him any more, down there.”

She pressed closer to the muddy edge and stood looking down into the water. Then, sudden and unbidden, a thought came to her, as may have come the angel's touch to the lone prophet when in the wilder- wilderness page: 174 ness beneath the juniper tree he laid him down to die.

Might I not serve him!

How or in what way, who could say? But life is very long, and the wheel turns strangely. How could she tell that he would never need her!

The prophet of old ate of the angel's bread and went forty days and forty nights in the strength of that meal; she also ate of angel's meat, the only food which the heavens now yield us, and went forty times forty in the strength thereof.

Back to the house she turned slowly; and no one ever knew how nearly she had found rest and quiet on that windy night.

What a small thing it is sometimes that makes life's kiss sweeter than death's to us—the light in a pair of blue eyes—a little applause for a picture we have put on canvas—a few comprehenders for a song we have written—the knowledge that our name means something when scrawled on the bit of paper which we call a cheque. These mean life for some of us. Take these out of life, and what an unbearable weight it becomes. We walk about in this rich teeming world as through an empty, howling wilderness; and if we do not fear to meet with something more wearying on the other side, how we seek to get out of it by way of a muddy pool, a bullet, or a few drops of arsenic.

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'Tis very strange, very ridiculous, quite incomprehensible, no doubt; but some really do require something more to reward them for the trouble of living than black cloth, roast beef, and the power to use them.

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