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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 180
page: 181

XIII.

A VERY WICKED WOMAN

A FEW weeks after the night of the bargain two notices appeared in the same paper. The first informed the world that on a certain day George Blair, Esq., and Undine Bock had become, till death should part them, bone of one bone and flesh of one flesh, by a holy and inscrutable mystery, two in one and one in two.

The second notice asserted that the like wonderful and miraculous though oft-repeated process had taken place between Mr. Albert Blair and Lady Edith Mountjoy.

“Did I not say so?” said Miss Mell, excitingly, as, seated beside Mrs. Barnacles' sofa with the paper in her hands, she read the two notices. “She was not half the poor little fool you all thought her; she understood her game when she let the son slip to catch the father; she knew where the meat lay.

“She has a nice nest of it,” continued Miss Mell. “The old man is too stout and apoplectic to last long, and the sons are both in his bad books, where you may be sure she will take good care to keep them. page: 182 She is an innocent little creature, only likes her books and her flowers, but she knows a thing or two. We shall have her here after a few years,” continued the poor little woman, “a widow with her thousands, cutting a dash and riding roughshod over our heads.”

She felt it was an unjust world this, in which one woman wins all the cakes and bon-bons and another nothing more than dry bread and weak tea.

An hour or two later Cousin Jonathan, sitting in his study, read them also, and as he read his heart grew lighter. It had been heavy, strangely heavy, of late.

“She could never have cared for him or she could not have done this,” he muttered. “To marry for money and so soon: she could never have cared for him.” And with these words the little man was wont to quiet unpleasant stirrings for months and years to come.

Albert Blair, taking up the paper to see his own notice, read what stood above it.

“What a merciful escape I have had!” he exclaimed, and for once the imperturbable calm that reigned within him was almost disturbed. It is never pleasant to find yourself a dupe where you thought yourself adored, and a fool where you thought your self wise; and what small pity he had felt for the little girl who loved him was changed into loathing for the woman who had fooled him. From that mo- moment page: 183 ment his flickering faith in woman died and he held his father's creed—the creed that all women have their value in coins, though some mount high.

In a poor half-furnished room the owner of the woman's eyes and the crammed head sat beside a bare deal table. Before him lay an open newspaper.

“There is nothing worth loving, nothing true, nothing noble in the world,” he cried, bitterly, and buried his face in the paper before him. When he raised it, it was wet with tears. She was not only as all women are, but lower than many: to sell herself, with her youth and talents, to an old and evil man for his money and lands.

“O God, my God!” he cried in bitterness of soul, covering his face with both hands, “and this is the woman whom I have allowed to come in between my soul and Thee.”

In a richly furnished apartment, enveloped in a soft cloud of white lace and delicate azure ribbons, sat Undine Blair. Diamonds glittered in her hair and her little jewelled fingers strayed listlessly over the leaves of the paper before her. Around her on every side lay a profusion of those things in which a woman's soul delights—the bon-bons and cakes that the Miss Mells of this world sigh for.

She was sitting waiting for dinner and the arrival of her husband, and ran her eye carelessly over the sheet before her. There, below the notice of her own sale, stood that other notice. She read it and page: 184 a burning mist gathered in her eyes. From her ears and neck she tore jewels that hung there and threw them on the ground at her feet. Signs of her servitude, worn for his sake, there had been a sweetness in their very bitterness. Now they were accursed—burning into her very sleep; she trod upon them with her foot. For nothing, all for nothing; he had no need of her. Poor childish fool, to think that ever he could stand in need of her or of her sacrifice.

“Dinner is ready and my master is waiting,” said a servant who a few moments later came to call her.

“Say I am ill today and cannot come,” she answered, and when the door closed behind him sank back in the chair and covered her dry throbbing eyeballs with her hot hands. She ground her teeth in futile rage and helplessness. Parched and very bitter was her soul that night.

Truly, a very fiend's had been the voice that had called her back to life from the muddy, reed-edged pool, called her back to life to pass from evil on to evil.

A soft pulpy hand rested on her bare shoulder and her husband spoke to her.

“Is my little pet ill this evening? What is the matter with her?”

She threw his hand from her with passion through which involuntary disgust was clearly visible, and, page: 185 eluding the hand with which he strove to detain her, passed quickly from him.

“What do you mean by this?” cried the little man, and stood staring at the closed door by which she had vanished. His astonishment was great. In the three weeks of his married life she had taken all his caresses, submitted to all his wishes, as absolutely as though subdued by the most slavish passion. As an automaton is guided by the hand of its master, his will had moved hers, and of desire or inclination of her own she had seemed devoid.

Was his honeymoon to end so soon? Were his self-congratulations to end in this? Had he really purchased a scourge and a termagant in his fair young wife? As soon as he could leave the delights of the table, had he not hurried upstairs really concerned at the indisposition of his precious new treasure—puffing and red with wine, soup, and exertion? Had he not entered the room to caress and fondle her? And was he to be met so? Had he played the fool in his old days? he asked himself. For the first time in his long life he thought he had fallen into a bad speculation, but he changed his mind as time passed on. In the months that followed the scene of that evening was never repeated. She grew quieter, colder, but more passive and submissive every week. Whether it were to sit by his side, to have her lips kissed, to wear a particular dress, to page: 186 attend a certain ball, the obedience she gave him was equally absolute, unquestioning, and lifeless.

He had paid his price for her faithfully, she realised, and it was not his fault if the thousands he had given her were of as little service as a handful of gravel from his paths. She had bartered her life for his gold and she must give it.

In the autumn they went to the seaside. The restless murmuring of the water stirred up old memories which she would fain have left buried; but he wished to be there and she said nothing. The winter and spring they spent in London; when the summer came they went to his new estate.

“I shall never be able to live in Greenwood,” she said. And he paid deference to the one wish she had expressed.

“You never ask me to do anything for you,” he said one day. “Ask me for something.” And she, obedient in this as in all else, asked him to buy the little rose-covered cottage in which her grandmother lived. The gift came too late to profit the one for whom it was intended; for in the winter her grandmother died.

If she felt the loss, no one could tell, for she showed no feeling on that or any subject. During the summer their house was filled with guests of many kinds, not because either host or hostess had many friends or was well liked, but because there was good shooting, good living and good company page: 187 to be had there. All admired the young wife and pronounced her lovely—even women. They had as little reason to feel jealous of her as of the silent statues that adorned her rooms.

“She is a cold, dull, heartless little creature in whom nothing can awaken the faintest spark of womanly emotion,” said one who considered himself preëminently endowed with those charms of appearance and manner which cause disturbance in the hearts of women, and who, through a long morning ramble, had been vainly endeavouring to exercise his charms upon her. For him, for all, there was one constant smile that went no higher than the lips, and that had no meaning save when a little scorn showed itself. Cold, heartless, and surely money-loving must be one who could marry an old, bloated and apoplectic little man who had only gold with which to varnish himself and cake over his deficiencies.

“She dresses well and knows how to make herself look beautiful, but that is the only thing she has sense enough to understand,” said the women. But none of them accused her of vanity. She was too supremely indifferent as to the impression she made on others.

No one offended her, no one cared for her: not her inferiors in spite of her lavish generosity to them. Her kindest actions were done in an indifferent, feelingless manner that made it as impossible to feel page: 188 thankful for them as to the rain for falling or the wind for blowing.

Nancy, being now without employment, came one day to see if Undine would take her into her service. “And, Lor'!” said she, when giving an account of all that had passed to her lover that evening, “I did not know Miss Undine: she's grown so beautiful and dresses so grand; it kind of took my breath away to look at her. Then I just remembered how she used to lie under them old trees in the garden and rub down them chairs, and so I says, ‘Miss Undine—Mrs. Blair I mean—I hope you'll be so good as to forgive me for making so bold, but I'm out of work now and I thought perhaps as how you'd be so good as to let me get some work, if as how you have any to give.’

“‘Aren't you married yet?’ says she, a-looking straight at the book in her hand.

“‘Lor'! Mrs. Blair, no,’ says I. ‘I've not got anything to get married with,’ says I.

“‘If you had that little cottage my grandmother used to live in, I suppose you could do well,’ says she; ‘it's got a large garden.’

“‘Lor'! mum,’ says I, ‘we could never have a house like that; it's worlds too grand for the likes of us.’

“‘Well,’ says she, ‘if you think it would help you, you can go and live in it for nothing,’ says she, ‘and I'll see that you get work whenever you want it.’

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“‘Lor'! Mrs. Blair, you don't mean it, mum!’ says I.

“‘Yes, you can go in as soon as you like,’ says she; ‘but the housekeeper asked me to let a woman stay in the little shed outside the garden; you must not trouble her,’ says she, and goes on reading as though there weren't no one in the room. My head was all of a-whirl like, so I just says thank you, mum, and walks out of the room.”

A few days after Nancy's visit Undine made her morning ramble a longer one than usual. She was alone, and a solitary walk was a pleasure she had rarely enjoyed since her marriage. Mile after mile she wandered on till she found herself near to the little rose-covered cottage, very silent and desolate now with its flower-clothed walls and its closed shutters. She did not enter the garden, but passed round to the front of the house, thinking to rest on the bench beneath the great tree that grew before the door. The spot was occupied, however, and she stood at a little distance, watching its occupant who, not aware of her presence, was stitching quickly at the blue work she held in her hands. She was an erect, tall, well-proportioned woman with lustrous black eyes and glistening black hair.

She had been very beautiful once, thought Undine, more beautiful than I. But the young face was worn now and there were lines of suffering round the dark eyes and curved lips. Something hard, page: 190 almost repellent, was in the expression of the face she bent over her work, but the look vanished when she paused for an instant in her work to throw down a bunch of green leaves at the baby that lay before her on the soft short grass, a pink-and-white thing with blue eyes and yellow hair. She smiled a soft, glad smile, and Undine felt sure it was not the first time she had looked at that face and smile, though where and when she had looked at them she could not tell. The woman was raggedly clothed, not even cleanly; the child was spotless, and neither in colour nor in features bore any resemblance to her.

She was just resuming her work when she noticed Undine and rose from her seat as the little silk-clad lady approached.

“Do not rise,” said Undine; “the bench is large enough for us both.”

She felt attracted by her, not because of her neglected beauty, not by the vague impression that they had met before, but by a look in the dark eyes which drew her, as a look sometimes will in the face of some passenger in a crowd or a woman behind a counter. We may never speak, have no communication, but we feel that we have come near to one who is of our own flesh and blood.

“Do you live here all alone?” asked the silken-clad little beauty as she took her seat beside her rag-clad sister, who, if she remembered meeting her be- before page: 191 fore, did not show it and stitched on quickly with downcast eyes.

“No. I have him,” answered the woman, looking down at the nine-months-old baby at her feet. “Having him, how can I be lonely? How can I want anything?” the look said; then she hurried on with her work again.

“Do you not feel very lonely, living here so far from all other houses?” asked Undine after a moment's pause.

“No,” said the woman, shortly. “I like it.”

Then Undine sat quietly watching the large, soft, brown hands that had evidently not been accustomed to hard work, the proud erect figure, the defiant sullen face, and the pink-and-white thing that laughed at their feet. She was a woman who had come no one knew from where, with only a baby, and her story was not difficult to read. Her neighbours read it after their fashion and called her a wicked woman, a very wicked woman.

When Undine had rested a few minutes longer she rose to go, but first she kneeled down on the grass where the baby lay.

“One kiss, for the sake of your bonny blue eyes,” she said.

As she walked slowly past the garden hedge she came to the shed where mother and child lived. 'Twas a miserable tumble-down place, yet Undine, as she passed it, envied them.

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“I am not alone, for I have him, the child of love,” the eyes had said; and Undine with her empty heart, and the knowledge that she, too, soon would be mother of a child, not the child of love, but of loathing—Undine with her riches and her good name envied the dark woman her disgrace, her baby, and her rags.

“Where have you been all day? Not climbing the hills and over-exerting yourself, I hope?” said her fat little proprietor as he met her in the door on her return; and for the rest of that day she was never free of him; neither on many days that followed did she find an opportunity for repeating that morning's walk.

The anniversary of their wedding day came. They had given a grand dinner, but the guests had departed early, and her husband, having indulged a little more freely than usual in that which makes heavy the heart of man, had fallen asleep on the sofa in his dressing-room. She stood at the low open window of her room, looking out into the oppressive night. There was that heavy stillness in the air that precedes the bursting of a great storm.

“You may go. I shall not need you tonight,” she said to her maid; and when she had withdrawn, Undine threw a great shawl over her head and stepped out of the window, still dressed in black velvet and wearing on her neck the pearls that had made her the envied of many women that night. page: 193 She walked on quickly, not caring which path she took and pressing her foot hard on the ground at every step. It had caused a greater strain than usual that evening to wear, without once dropping it for a moment, that mask of smiles that she wore till the lines in her cheeks grew stiff and hurt.

As she walked on, the lines of an old song she had liked ran through her head: “Behind no prison gate,” she said, “That slurs the sunshine half a mile, Are captives so uncomforted As souls behind a smile.”

“God's pity let us pray,” she said.

Thinking of nothing, with these lines running, running through her head, she walked while the sky grew dark and yet darker. Presently gusts of wind came hurrying past her, and then the great storm whose forerunners they had been overtook her. Fiercely the wind shook the branches of the trees over her head, and the large drops fell heavily through them. She was too far from home to think of returning, but she knew her grandmother's cottage could not be far off. She would go and sit in the little porch till the worst was over, she thought, and walked on slowly while the fast-falling rain made its way through her shawl and drenched her to the skin.

As she passed near the broken shed she noticed page: 194 light coming through its small crooked window and through the crevices and cracks in its old stone walls. When she passed the window she paused for a moment and looked in. Most of the panes of glass were gone, their place being supplied by strips of pasted paper, but through the two squares that still remained she could clearly see all that the hovel contained. In one corner stood a small stretcher which was now unoccupied, for on a small stool before the fire, with her back turned to the window, sat the woman, her head stooping low over the baby she held close to her. Before the window stood a small table in which a tallow candle fixed in a broken brass candlestick was flickering and flaring. In the hearth the smouldering fire was almost extinguished by the rain which came down through the chimney, and the drops which made their way through the roof gathered themselves together in pools on the uneven floor.

It was a strange reversal in the order of things—the honoured wife of the rich man in her velvets and jewels standing out in the night storm and gazing in with envious eyes at the home where poverty and shame had taken their abode.

There came a hush in the storm and Undine could hear the woman was murmuring to the child as she bent over it. The first words she did not hear, but some came to her through the crevices and holes in the crazy window frame: “My child, my little child, page: 195 you will not leave me, you will not forsake me. You are all, all I have.” Then there came words Undine did not catch, and then again: “If you will only stay with me, I will live for you, work for you, starve for you; you shall be rich and clever one day. I am not cruel to want to keep you. You must not die, you cannot die, my little baby. I loved you so before you lived. You are all I have of him. You must not die and leave me, my baby, my little baby.”

Then the mad storm came back howling after its rest, and the words were lost. Uncertain whether to enter or to go on to the cottage, Undine paused for an instant, then knocked at the door. There was no response and she laid her hand on the broken latch. The crazy door, opening, let her in, with a flood of rain and a gust of wind that almost extinguished the quickly melting candle.

“I hope I have not frightened you,” she said, when she had fastened it once more. “I have been overtaken in the storm.”

The woman made no answer, but looked up at her with dull, lustreless eyes; then, recognising her visitor, she said, “You liked my baby; you were the only one who ever kissed him. He is dying now.” She said the last words slowly and distinctly in a harsh whisper, and then looked down at the little figure wrapped in a great shawl that lay upon her knee.

Undine kneeled down beside her. She would page: 196 have spoken words of comfort, but when her eyes fell on the little face, even by the uncertain light of the flickering candle and fire, she saw that death's hand was on the baby and the little life of love and shame would soon be ended.

In silence she kneeled by them, holding in her white jewelled fingers the tiny cold hand that rested on the shawl, while her long velvet train was curled up in one of the pools on the floor.

There was no word spoken in the hut for a long time. The storm shook the loose walls in its fury, the great raindrops killed the smouldering fire, and the two women sat watching in silence for the coming of the awful stranger.

At last there came a sudden hush in the storm. No sound was heard but the slow falling of the raindrops as they dripped from the roof into the puddles on the floor, and the candle flickered no more but burnt up straight and steady. Then the little child heaved a long weary sigh, and the clasp of the little hand relaxed, the closed eyes partly opened, and they knew that death had been with them.

The mother sat as one who dreams, looking down at that which lay upon her knees, and their breathing sounded loud in the stillness.

At last she rose suddenly and, dropping the child heavily into Undine's arms, turned towards the door.

At that instant the storm came back, loud and fierce after its rest. She went out into it and to page: 197 the darkness, and in the hut Undine sat with the dead child on her knee.

The light fell full on the little face with its half-closed eyes that looked so strangely old and stern now with the shadow of death upon them.

As she looked down at it she seemed to see, not the face of the little snow-white baby, but that other face that haunted her day and night—the face that she would never forget, that came in between her and the blue sky when she tried to look upwards, and between her eyes and the sunny grass and flowers when they smiled upon her.

Was she not to look into the face of a dead child without seeing it even there, also?

It was like madness, she thought, and drew from beneath the small chin a white handkerchief that lay folded there, to cover from her sight the strange white face.

As she opened and spread it out, her eyes fell on a name beautifully worked on one corner. She read it and then sat thinking. After a long time she raised the little baby very gently and held it close to her. His dead baby. For she knew now that it was no madness that showed her the old haunting face in the features of the little child.

She knew now where she had seen that woman's face before, with its lustrous eyes and brilliant tints; remembered now the old hints and stories which she had regarded as lies but which tonight came page: 198 back to her as truths. And she saw it all—the deep love of years, giving all things, denying nothing, pouring itself out at the feet of that stern strong man to whom it was only a thing to be used, drawn upon, and, when no longer needed, trodden on and forgotten.

His little baby! Cared nothing for—loathed, perhaps—but what a difference. His little baby still. If she had only known it while the warm blood ran in the lips that struck her cold and chill when she pressed them now. If she had only known it sooner.

She gathered it up in her arms and moved the pearls aside that it might lie close, close against her soft warm breast—close, as though she would have given of her life to bring it back.

Then she laid it down once more and sat looking at it, and when the candle fell into its socket she still sat holding it, and the grey dawn when it looked in still found her sitting here.

The storm had gone, and when the sun arose the earth was green and laughing. The fresh morning wind helped the green branches to shake off the glittering drops that still hung on them, the flowers opened their eyes by thousands, the warming earth sent up a delicious smell, and the heavy grasses raised their wet heads and the tender plants shot out of the moist ground through every crack.

The storm had gone; only here and there a strong bough hung broken, or a great tree lay upon its side, page: 199 whispering of last night's work. For nature keeps her secrets well and hides away from the sunshine the things which she does in darkness.

Yes, well she keeps her secrets!

When the curious morning sunbeams forced their way through the tall reeds and matted boughs that grew over the muddy pool, they saw nothing, they knew nothing; they could not tell what it was that lay across the old rotten trunk deep under the thick still water, with its brown hair buried in the mud. They did not know it, and the small birds did not know it, or how were it possible they should sing in the branches overhead such joyous lies? “Life is sweet,” they said. “Life is sweet, and love is long; it lasts all summer time.”

“Tell me all about it, Nancy,” said her lover as he conducted her home through the quiet fields that evening.

“So I will,” said Nancy, “but Lor' bless me if I know where to begin, there's been so much a-happening today.”

“Begin at the beginning,” was her lover's very sage advice, which Nancy followed.

“Well, this morning, afore ever the sun got up, I went to the cottage to have a look at them shutters which we forgot to shut after we had been a-cleaning up last night and which I thought as how the wind page: 200 would have blown off. Well, just as I goes past the little shed outside the garden, what should I see but Mrs. Blair a-standing in the door as large as life, and a great shawl over her head and all.

“‘Good-morning,’ says I, wondering how she comed there at this time of day.

“‘Nancy,’ says she, ‘there's a little child dead in here. I wish you'd call your mother and come and see to it, and see to the mother, too.’

“‘Where is the mother?’ says I, looking in.

“‘I don't know,’ says she, and walks off.”

“What do you think she came there for?” asked her lover, curiously.

“Lor'! I don't know,” responded Nancy. “Nobody can't give no reason for her goings-on. I wouldn't be in no ways surprised to hear she'd been and gone and drunk poison, or gone up in a balloon, or been a-doing anything unlike other folks.”

“Well, I went and called mother and we seed to the baby: and the prettiest fattest little thing I ever seed, it was.

“Mother says, ‘Nancy,’ says she, ‘look in that there little box under the bed and see if you can't find no clothes for it. The woman don't seem to be a-coming yet.’

“‘Yes,’ says I, and pulls out the box. The thing was locked, but, Lor'! it was so rotten, afore you'd touched it it was broken open, and there weren't much in it, neether—just a pair of babies' clothes page: 201 and the beautifullest little box that ever I see; and, Lor'! I do believe it's real gold and writing all over the top, and mother and I, we spelt out, Alice Brown and something about a drowning, but the other words were a sight too long.”

“And what was in the box?” asked her lover. “Money?”

“Money?” said Nancy. “No. I just opened it afore I thought, and what do you think I seed in it? Why, the likeness of the beautifullest young man I ever set eyes on in all my born days. The man on the hairpin box ain't nothing to him, nothing. Curly hair and moustaches just the same, but a sight more handsome.”

“Was that all?” said her companion, not feeling in any way entertained by the raptures of his lady love over the pictured perfection.

“Yes, that was all,” said Nancy, “'cept a couple of bits of cigars, half burnt out, and an old glove a sight too big for her I should say, though she is pretty considerable big.”

“What did she say when she came back and found you'd been a rummaging all her things?”

“Comed back! She never comed back,” said Nancy, “and it's my belief she never will neither. She's come from nowheres and she's gone to nowheres. She thinks as how other folks can see to its burying, but it's always the way with the likes of her. Women that do the sort of thing she's been page: 202 a-doing of, they never have no natural feeling,” said the virtuous Nancy. And her lover agreed with her.

“Did you tell Mrs. Blair about her never coming back?” inquired the swain.

“Well, that's what I'm just a-coming to,” said Nancy. “At four o'clock I says; ‘Mother,’ says I, ‘hadn't I better be going down to Mrs. Blair's just for to tell her that the woman hasn't come?”

“‘I was just a-thinking so,’ says mother. So off I went. When I gets there, ‘Can't I see the mistress?’ says I.

“‘Don't you know?’ says he.

“‘Know what?’ says I.

“‘That she's a-dying, and the baby,too,’ says he.

“‘Baby,’ says I. ‘Lor! you don't mean it.’

“‘Yes,’ says the housemaid, a-coming up, ‘she was took ill this morning, and the baby ain't much bigger nor your hand and more like a rat nor a baby.’

“Well, afore I could say anything in comes the nurse.

“‘How's Mrs. Blair?’ says I.

“‘She's pretty near gone,’ says the nurse, ‘but she's asking after somebody. I can't hear the name very clear, but I think it's Nancy Grey.’

“‘If it is,’ says I, ‘here I am,’ and so she takes me upstairs.

“The room was so dark I could see nothing at first, but, Lor'! when I did it was awful sad to see page: 203 her a-lying there so white and dead like. She didn't take no notice of me, so after I waited a bit she said as how I had best come out. And I was just a-going out at the door when the nurse brings her baby for to put it by her side.

‘Take it away, take it away!’ she cries out, quite strong like, and then I comed out.”

“And what are you going to do with the other baby?” inquired Nancy's lover.

“Have it buried, to be sure,” said Nancy. “Mr. Blair he'll pay for it if she's dead.”

But Undine did not die. And the baby lived, a puny shrivelled thing, but still it lived. One Sunday afternoon, four weeks later, they carried her from her bed to a sofa, wrapped in a richly embroidered dressing-gown and a great shawl. Near her, in its white-and-blue-satin-covered cradle, they laid her baby.

Why would they always bring that thing into her sight and keep it near her? Was it not enough that its little weak cry had rung loud in her ears when she was insensible to every other sound and had made her lose all love of life, all wish to keep it, even more then than the kisses of its father had done.

For every few hours the little man would steal softly into the room on tiptoe, with his hands open and his fingers stretched out, and, breathing very hard, would come up to her bedside to see how matters stood. When the death scale seemed to be page: 204 going down he was seriously concerned, and refused to find consolation in devilled turkey, allowing the gravy on his plate to congeal there several times before he touched it, an event wholly unprecedented in the past. Now, however, he could sip his wine at ease and smoke his cigar in tranquillity, for the doctors had pronounced her out of danger and the baby still lived. True, it looked as though the first ball coming its way must inevitably bowl it out of the game, but a baby is not very much. Babies are plentiful, and he had his wife and would have another baby some day.

On this Sunday afternoon he sat dozing peacefully in his chair, and the nurse sat by his wife.

“I think I shall sleep. I don't want to be disturbed,” said Undine; and the nurse, not unwilling to take the hint, rose and left her. The room was very cool and still. A soft light came in through the dark-green curtains. She lay on the soft pillows with her face resting on her thin hand, and looked at the baby, a mere speck of red amid the blue and white. Her baby and his, therefore she hated it. Her baby—she looked at it, and then lay thinking.

It was strange to know its life had sprung from hers. Strange to have hung another tiny wheel in the great world machine that grinds on so mysteriously with its ever-jarring, never-resting wheels flying round forever. And what did it all mean? What were they all, really—that little life—the page: 205 purple violets—the dark-green curtains—herself lying there and thinking? Were they all nothing, dreams, shadows? Or something? And, if something, O God! what?

It was the old question she had asked so often when she stood, a little child, looking at the dry Karoo bushes on the old farm; and it met, as then, the old oppressive silence for an answer—silence like the hush which comes when we sit by the seashore on a dark night and hold our breaths to hear the great restless waters running up and down.

Presently she moved her hand quickly across her eyes, and then rose slowly and moved with trembling steps to the cradle-side.

“Poor little soul,” she said and stooped down over it, “life is too wonderful to hate in. Poor little soul, we are all too nearly bound for hating”; and she took the baby to her. When her husband came in half an hour later he was surprised to find his child in her arms and a bunch of soft violets clasped in its tiny hand.

“Why do you do that?” he asked as he sat down beside her.

“Because I am going to call her Violet,” his wife answered, and looked up at him with a smile so bright and unlike her own that it made him feel uncomfortable for a moment. Surely she was not going to die.

But after that day he often saw it, and others saw page: 206 it also. The very servants whispered that their mistress had changed strangely; and surely it was the coming of the baby that had changed her, they said, speaking like the little children who fancy that the swallows bring the summer.

In the long bright days that followed she would have an armchair put out under the great trees on the other side of the lawn, and would sit there all day with the child in her arms, drinking in the sunny beauty of grass and sky, as though birds sang to her what others could not hear.

Sometimes she read in those still sweet days; and books, which to her had so long been meaningless and dumb, had again voice and life. Whether they were the hot words of a passion-filled heart singing to appease its own intolerable hunger, or the calm record of things long past, or the exact statement of some savant concerning a flower he had dissected, there was life in them all and music. To her they were as food to one who wakes hungry after a long dark dream.

Oh, the beauty of those days, the glory of the brown that rested on the hilltops, the brightness that hung over the cut stones of the house walls!

So sweet was that first draught of a new life that she had no eye to mark shadows, and did not notice, as all others did, that the life of the little child was growing weaker and fainter as the autumn days drew near. She knew so little of children that page: 207 its slow growth did not trouble her; it knew her, and would open its dark eyes and lie smiling up at her for long times together, as they sat out in the sunshine.

“My little friend,” she used to call it softly, and whisper all to it of things which could not have been spoken in any other ear.

“My little friend, who loves me.”

“Some one ought to tell her; she does not dream of it,” they all said. “She will wake up some morning and find the child lying dead in her arms.” The doctor said so, her husband said so, they all said so; yet no one cared to tell her.

At last one evening, when the sun was almost setting, the old doctor went out to look for her. He found her sitting on the grass with the baby on her lap, bathed in the rich regretful sunset light that warmed the soft tints of the flowers in the little wreath she had wound around the child's head. He looked down at the little face below the wreath, and wondered that love could look at it without reading it. He asked her very gently how it was.

Undine only smiled softly for an answer, and said, as she stuck tiny leaves of grass among the flowers: “She is so fond of flowers, and does not tear them to pieces as other children do. She holds them so carefully in her hand and turns them round and looks at them. We don't give babies credit for half wisdom enough,” she said.

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“It is growing very thin,” said the doctor, taking its small clenched fist into his hand, “very thin.”

“Not thinner than it was,” said Undine; “and when next summer comes we will go to the sea; it will soon be strong and well then.”

“That is a long time to wait,” said the doctor, gravely. “Many things may have happened before next summer.”

Undine looked up into his grave face, and down at the little one with its crown of flowers. After a long pause she said, “What do you mean?” And he knew she had read what was written there.

It was not needful to say much more. He soon left her sitting in the sunlight. “Oh, my little friend,” she said; “is it to be always so? Are we only to lift our heads above the water to be pushed down again? Do we only rise up because, if we did not, we could not be flung down to earth? Is light only sent to make the darkness visible?”

She sat there till the last glow had faded from the hilltops and the grass on which they sat began to grow damp and cold.

“My little friend, I am very cruel to wish to keep you. Would life have more of happiness for you than it has had for me?—a little gladness out of colours and lights; a little sweetness out of dreams; one hour of bliss looking at footmarks in the white snow? Is that enough to make it worth keeping? Oh, my little friend, it will be better to go. You page: 209 have made a little brightness. There is nothing better waiting for you if you stay.”

“Not in bed yet?” said her husband when, returning late the next evening from a dinner he had been attending in the neighbouring town, he found his wife still up and sitting on a low chair with the child on her knees. “You might as well have gone with me if you meant to sit up so late. You will never get your roses back if you go on in this way.

“I cannot go to bed tonight,” she said, quietly, smoothing softly the crumples in the child's little nightdress. “It is very ill.”

“Ill? What's the matter?” he said, peering down into its face for a moment. “It looks just as usual to me. I suppose that fool of a doctor has been frightening you.”

“No; he says there is no cause to be anxious just tonight, but I can see more than he can.”

“Oh, we all know you can see through a wall, but it would be more sensible of you to go to bed and rest,” responded her master, sullenly, as he turned away and left the room.

“Would not touch the baby at first, or have it brought near her; goes and makes a fool of herself over it now,” he grumbled. “Couldn't see that it was ill, and thinks it's dying now. She's a queer composition.”

It was a warm night for that time of year, and page: 210 Undine had opened the great doors and windows on both sides of the room to let in the air. Yet the lamp that hung overhead burnt steadily and threw down its unwavering steady light over mother and child. On the mantelpiece the bronze clock ticked regularly, but the breathing of the child was so low it could not be heard.

Perhaps she was very foolish, after all; the doctor must know best; and she looked down inquiringly. There was just the faintest smile about the little mouth and the hands were crossed loosely on the little breast. As she looked the smile passed slowly and the child opened wide its eyes and fixed them on the lamp overhead—those large, unearthly deep brown eyes.

Undine would not move for fear of disturbing it, but the baby turned its head round slowly, and looked up into her face with those great calm eyes. Did they speak to her or did she only fancy it? Those dark awful eyes of her own little child. There was no dread, there was no questioning in them, but a calm, solemn light.

Undine looked deep, deep into them. She did not hear the clock strike or know how the moments passed, till the white lids dropped slowly. There was no sigh, there was no change, but when she laid her hand upon its breast she knew that the baby was dead.

She rose up and carried its body to the large white page: 211 bed, and laid it down just as it was with its peacefully crossed hands. Then she dropped down on her knees beside it with her forehead on the ground, and the dead was not more motionless than the living.

The next morning when her husband, having been roused early and told of his child's death, went out in search of Undine, he found her sitting in the sunshine on the dewy grass.

“It is dead,” she said, looking up at him with a calm, cloudless face, as though she had said, “It is asleep.” He wondered, for how should he understand the love she bore her child, the passionless love, loving it in spite of its being hers? The baby I love, because it is mine; the woman I cling to against my reason—I must hear them, see them, touch them, or be devoured by a senseless gnawing; but the friend whose soul has reached mine, the thing I have loved for what it taught me, I let them pass without a tear, for my part of them remains with me, and for the rest, let it go.

“You have heard the news, of course,” said Miss Mell one morning before she had entered Mrs. Barnacles' room. She was very much out of breath, for she was growing asthmatic of late. “Harry Blair has come. I saw him myself half an hour ago, and he says his father is dead. Did you ever hear of such a thing? Some people are lucky,” said Miss Mell with energy.

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“Why, I don't think he will get much. Did his father leave him anything?”

“Leave him anything! Of course he didn't. You may be sure she would take good care of that. I can see it now just as well as if it were past—how she'll come here lording it over everybody and marrying a big swell before the year's out. With all her money and her bold, free manners, men are sure to be taken by her. I am sure she has no good looks to talk of, but they are such fools they never see it. They are so easily taken in.”

“Even if they are, I don't wonder that you never managed to do it,” thought Mrs. Barnacles; but she only replied: “I don't know anything about her. I've never heard her mentioned since her baby died two years ago. I've never had but two notes from her since she left. Gratitude was and never will be one of Undine Blair's virtues.”

Mrs. Barnacles refrained from making any further animadversions on the character of her connection; for it struck her that should Miss Mell's prognostications be verified, it would be just as well to have a smile for the young heiress and get the benefit of some of the fruit and game that would be plentiful at Blair House. Indeed, it would be rather pleasant than otherwise to have all Greenwood ridden over the head by a connection of hers, provided only that she were not included in the everybody.

Miss Mell, whose aversion for Undine was of the page: 213 same nature as that of a cat for water, or a Kaffir for work, quite irrepressible, inherent and inextinguishable, continued to express her opinion of the character of her natural enemy with asperity that might not be rivalled. She was just remarking on the perfidy of her behaviour towards Harry Blair, when Cousin Jonathan's mild blue eyes looked in at the door.

“Do come in, Mr. Barnacles. You've heard the news, no doubt; perhaps you've seen Mr. Blair?”

“Yes, he called on me as soon as he arrived. He was on the Continent when he got the news of his father's illness, and came to find him dead.”

“Poor fellow! Did he really expect to get anything?” said Miss Mell, in a voice expressive of infinite scorn at his credulity.

“No; he was astonished when he got home to find that the property was to be divided equally between the two brothers. He had no idea of any such thing.”

“So the old man left her nothing?” said Miss Mell.

“No,” assured Cousin Jonathan; “he left her everything, but she's gone off, nobody knows where, and has left an order that everything is to be divided between them. Harry Blair has come here to enquire whether I know anything about her.”

“I should say the best thing would be to let her alone,” said Miss Mell; “she has evidently got some nice little game of her own to play.” But Miss Mell page: 214 was discomfited. Hitherto her abhorrence of that red-cheeked, scheming affectation had been of a groundless kind, accountable only on the hypothesis of natural antipathies. Other girls as pretty did not arouse the latent feline propensity of her nature in anything like the same degree; it would not have given her half the infinite satisfaction to efface their beauty with thumb and finger nails that she would have had in operating on the cheeks of the scheming affectation. But now, to be proved a daughter of Belial, a false prophetess, by Undine obstinately refusing to commit the evil prophesied of her: was it not just cause for bitterness?

Saints made perfect forgive such injuries, but not a wrinkled woman on the rotten side of forty, with no money or intellect to keep the wine of life from turning sour in her bottle.

She sat there wishing Undine might be gone to the devil, as Alice Brown had gone in verification of her prophecy of six years before. She did not stay long, however, and found it hard work to change the expression of her countenance to one of serene affability as she passed young Mr. Dunstables in the street.

After she had gone, Cousin Jonathan sat down to smoke and read a sermon. It was a good cigar, but it hadn't any flavour; it was a nice sermon, original, by Henry Ward Beecher, but he didn't like it. He had not felt so many nasty twinges since he page: 215 had read a certain marriage notice in the papers years before. “I am growing too studious,” he said; “my nerves are debilitated, seriously debilitated. I must take a tonic. I must take a walk.”

Exercise is good for debility of many kinds, and he came home feeling better.

While he was walking in a desperate hurry with flying arms up the hill, Harry Blair was wandering in a desultory manner among the trees below. Cousin Jonathan was more light of heart than he had been for many a brown day:

“She was not so evil as they thought her, not so mercenary,” he said, and rejoiced.

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