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Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 334
page: 335

XVIII.

LITTLE IRONS AND A DIGGER

DIOGENES' little red head peeped out of her tub and she rolled herself from side to side and felt sadly disconsolate. Her rose bush was full of tender leaves, her back was not bad and the weather was glorious, but for three whole weeks she had had no story, and for three whole weeks her daily visitor had come only to go. She felt aggrieved and greatly wronged.

“I wish he had stopped in England; it would have been a great deal nicer for him,” she soliloquised, her little forehead all gathered up into knots and puckers.

“England's such a nice country, they say, and there's nothing nice in this land. I wonder why he came.”

Just at that moment Undine arrived.

“Is he better?” inquired Diogenes, evidently with great interest, and her lips seemed to grow yet heavier when she had received her answer.

“I don't believe he tries to get better,” she said in an aggrieved tone. “Don't you get tired to keep running up here all day?”

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“Not tired, but I am going to look for some Kaffir men to carry his tent down next to mine; then I will be able to take care of him and iron too. How is your back this morning?”

“Well,” said Diogenes, sullenly.

“I'm glad,” said Undine. “I'll come back again when I have got the Kaffirs. Good-bye.” And she was gone.

“I wish he was gone,” said Diogenes. “It is not a bit nice any more. Heigh-ho!” And she traced with her finger on the ground the B's and C's Undine had taught her to make.

As Undine had thought, it was a change for the better which brought the second tent into her little nest among the gravel-heaps. While one pair of hands and four irons had to skim over shirts enough in the twenty-four hours to pay for doctor, eggs, milk, medicine, and sufficient bread to keep the hands themselves going, they could ill afford to be long at rest. Now she could go on ironing all day without interruption, peeping in at his tent every time she passed to change an iron at the fire, which was built between three round stones at the back of the tent.

The doctor did not give much hope of his recovery. He was completely broken down, said the doctor, with hard work and bad living. All day he lay there as helpless as a little child, never speaking but when his mind wandered. Then he would often page: 337 fancy himself talking with the mine-captain and begging him not to give up yet, to keep on a little longer, to advance a little more money. Luck must turn soon. Or sometimes he was walking on the deck with the captain's pretty sister, and he would be whispering on softly for hours.

When Undine heard him she sometimes wondered whether it would not almost have been best to let him die alone, with his bit of roaster-cake in his solitary tent. He did not look much like winning the heart of any woman as he lay there moaning, with even his bonny curls cut off.

At last he grew better, and then it was hard to find time for the inevitable ironing. Let him seem ever so fast asleep, his eyes were sure to open if she rose to leave him. If she had nothing else to do for him, he liked her to sit beside him and talk.

One day she looked in at the door with a furiously red face and in one hand a hot iron that she had just been to fetch at the fire.

“Put that iron away”, he said, feebly, “till it gets cool. My eyes ache with them. They are always in your hands. I want you to answer me a question I can't answer for myself.”

“Well?” said Undine, pushing back her cap a little and leaning over to one side to balance the iron she held in the other. “What is it? I don't think the irons have absorbed quite all my intellect yet.”

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“As the spades and picks did mine. Tell me how it is that I am quite contented to lie here and be fed and nursed by you, and don't feel as though I ought even to thank you, when I would die sooner than take a broken sixpence from my own flesh and blood? How is it? I'm too weak to think.”

“You must be weak if you can't think that out,” she said, twisting one arm round the tent-post to keep her steady, and looking, he thought, almost beautiful in spite of her redness. “Don't you know there are things we have to be more grateful for than being nursed and fed? You've given me something to take care of, and so, though you don't think it, you feel you have done more for me than I for you. As for getting help from our relations,” said Undine, resting her head against the pole, “they are just the last people to go to unless one likes getting a pain in one's pride bones. One always has a lurking suspicion they are doing it from principle or necessity or something equally disagreeable; and that's why their money hurts. But my irons are getting cold,” she said, turning to go.

“Don't you ever get tired of them?” he asked. “It's so burning hot today.”

“Oh no, I never get tired, and it's not so hot today—as it might be. I get to like it.”

She walked off, but the iron she was using must have been a very heavy one, for when she was taking page: 339 it back to the fire she stumbled two or three times as though she would have fallen.

“What a very uneven little path this is,” she said to herself, thereby greatly maligning the very smooth little path over the gravel that led from the door of her tent to the fireplace. Perhaps it was by way of smoothing it that she knelt down by the water barrel and damped the crown of her head and lay there for half an hour looking very white. Anyhow, she did not say any more about the path being uneven after that.

A few days later, Undine paid her daily visit to Diogenes, who as usual lay in her tub with her rose bush before her. The discerning eyes of that small individual perceived something unusual and amiss in the face of her friend, and when Undine sat down beside the tub and leaned her hand against it, she said,

“Are you very tired today?”

“No, not at all.”

“You don't look happy. I wish I knew what was the matter; I wish you need never be tired or sad”; and Diogenes took Undine's rough little hand and rubbed it softly up and down with her chin. It was her way of showing sympathy; and it showed it more effectually than any words could have done—so effectually that it ended in making Undine cry. She pressed her face against the tub, and Diogenes fancied she heard a sob.

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“Oh dear! what is it?” said Diogenes, looking up, terribly troubled at the sound. “I did not know you could be so miserable. I thought you saw such beautiful things, you were always happy. I'm sure it's all that man's fault”; and Diogenes' clear grey eyes filled with wrathful but partly sympathetic tears.

“No, it is not; only I am weak and faint, and I want money.”

If her rose bush had stirred its tender leaves and said it wanted high-heeled boots and a fashionable bonnet, it would not have astonished Diogenes more.

“Thou shalt not love money; thou shalt not desire it; thou shalt despise it; it is the child of the devil, and his eldest born.” This was the little bit of ethical teaching which was sure to lift up its head in the wildest of Undine's fairy stories, and the effect on Diogenes had been so great that she often seriously debated in her own mind whether, seeing a pound lying at her feet, there would not be a certain amount of degradation in stooping to pick it up. To look up, therefore, and see her instructor's face wet with tears because she wanted money, wanted money, so puzzled Diogenes that she remained quiet for a few minutes.

Then she began to use her very practical little brains, and quickly came to certain conclusions.

“Can't you get money enough to pay the doctor?” page: 341 she asked, looking up softly from under her great shock of red hair.

“No, I can get that. I want much money, almost a hundred pounds. If I can't get that I don't want any, I don't want anything.”

Diogenes drew a long breath. She felt sure that disagreeable he was at the bottom of it all, but she would ask no more questions. She was rubbing her chin softly up and down Undine's hand when it touched the ring upon it—Aunt Margaret's ring.

“If you were to sell this, perhaps you would get much money; diamonds are so dear and it is so beautiful.”

Undine lifted her head quickly and looked down at it. She had as little thought of it as a thing to be parted with as the hand which wore it. The one link between her and the old days. She had worn it till it seemed to have grown a part of herself. Her baby friend had touched it, pleased with its flash and gleam. It had whispered to her that truth and love were possibilities when she had sat toying with it in the great, gayly filled, empty rooms of her husband's house. It had shone on a soft hand that had so often rested tenderly on her head. It had been the sign of a great love, faithful even unto death. She moved it softly round her finger two or three times; then she drew it off.

Why sacrifice the living to the dead, the present page: 342 to the past? The past is a fruitless dream, the present only is living and demands all things.

“Are you going to sell it?” asked Diogenes.

“Yes, at once,” said Undine, rising quickly, “and I will come back soon.”

“I know she liked that ring, and now she has got to sell it,” said Diogenes to herself as soon as Undine was out of hearing. “It's all his fault, I know it is. Perhaps she wants to send him to England. She said yesterday he was worse and would never get better if he couldn't go. I do wonder why he did not stay there,” said Diogenes, in her anger pulling so vigorously at one leaf of her rose that it came off. “I don't go about everywhere making everybody miserable.” Lost in the contemplation of her own virtue in abstaining from a crime which by no possibility she could have committed, and finding immense satisfaction in so doing, Diogenes lay still in her tub and waited for Undine's return.

She was long gone, but when she did make her appearance, it was so radiantly, joyfully, that Diogenes felt ashamed of her tears. If she had not liked parting with her ring, there was no sign of it in her face. She had got as much as she wanted, almost more; now he would know that he could go to England, and the hope would make him well.

“I knew it was for him,” muttered Diogenes under her breath; but Undine was too glad to hear it, too glad to sit down, and soon fluttered off. She page: 343 hardly felt the sandy road she plodded in, but only the little roll of notes tight-clasped in her hand, the little roll that meant hope and strength and life for him and, it might be, more than life—gladness in place of long years of weary loneliness. Even if he got well and, staying at New Rush till he had money, at last went home to find the woman who had charmed away his soul given to another, would he not curse the hand that had kept him from a quiet sleep in the New Rush graveyard?

It might be that, going home even now, he might find the bright eyes had fooled him; but Undine put the thought from her and enjoyed the sunshine of the moment.

He should never know from whom it came; it should be burdened with no debt of gratitude. Generally the work is heart-sickening, that of trying to bring joy and good to our heart's own, work in which failures are in number as gravel bort, 1 and the successes as diamonds. But for once Undine found success. The mysterious little parcel which the post brought him seemed to work in him all the wonders of the old life waters.

There were no more refusals to eat; no more weary days of stupor and relapse coming when he had wearied himself out with calculation as to the


1“Bort”—diamond dust; i.e., the “dust” infinitely outnumbering the “diamonds.”

page: 344 length of time it would take him to get strong and then to earn money enough for the long journey.

When the days grew warmer, he was strong enough to sit outside, among rugs and cushions on the shady side of the tent; sometimes to use his pencils; sometimes to watch Undine through the tent door as she stood smoothing away at her packing-case.

Pleasant days they were, flying all too quickly, for one at least, who worked and enjoyed the present and put the future from her.

At last the time came when they were only hours that could be counted before his departure. He was still so weak that it took him a long time to get from one tent to the other, but he was to leave by the next morning's coach. The last evening came. He lay on his stretcher, and Undine sat at its foot on the skirting in the doorway, trying to make the most of the daylight. She was darning the best of his old stockings, and he all the while chatted on eagerly of the future, in spirits unnaturally high, springing quickly from one subject to another.

“You are such a genius, Little Irons, in spite of your big kappie and your shirts. The world shall know of you some day, and I shall be so proud of the Little Irons who came to help me when all the world would have left me to drop out of life like a dog.” Then he speculated as to where the money could have come from, then on his own course for page: 345 the future; then talked of those first dreadful days of labour and failure, of the time it would take him to reach The Bay, 1 and at last talked himself to sleep. Then she stood up and put the stockings she had mended into his bag, and moved softly about the tent collecting pencils and various trifles that still lay about.

She had just packed the last of them when a coolie, 2 late out, passed the tent with his tray of wares upon his head. There were still two oranges left on it, so she told him to wait, and went into her tent to the broken ink pot where she kept her money. There was only one shilling in it, so one of the oranges had to go; the other she put in the pocket of the coat he was to wear tomorrow, which lay on the box at his side. There was no more money left in the ink pot, but what did it matter? There would be nobody to care for after tomorrow. What did anything matter? She went to her own tent and sat down in the doorway and tried to eat her supper; but eating did not answer; so presently she sat still with her head leaning against the door-post.

Across the road were the children of the Dutchwoman, shouting and tumbling over one another in their play. They had done so every night for the last six months, but did that night seem just like every other night to them?


1Port Elizabeth.

2Indian.

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He did not wake to eat his supper, and slept on straight till morning. Just at daybreak she stepped softly into his tent to wake him. The cart they had ordered to take him to the hotel would be there soon. He was scarcely ready, and Undine was still busy cutting up his tobacco when she caught the sound of the approaching wheels. He did not hear them till they were just before the tent; then he rose quickly and pressed the cut tobcacco into his pouch while the driver carried out his luggage. Then he turned to wish her good-bye. The grey light was just turning into white, and gusts of cold early wind blew in through the rolled up door.

“Good-bye, my friend, my dear Little Irons,” he said, warmly yet very gladly, and he stooped down to kiss her; but it was such a cold, trembling little face he touched that something smote his heart.

“I've been a great bother to you, dear Little Irons,” he said, resting his right hand tenderly on her shoulder. “You will have rest when I am gone and go back to your happy, quiet old life; and I shall never forget you, never. How could I?”

She stood on tiptoe and wound a scarf round his neck.

“Don't take it off till the sun gets warm,” she said.

“Oh, I'll take good care of myself,” he answered as he passed out of the door. Then he turned round to say good-bye once more. “Good-bye, but not for page: 347 very long; I feel sure we shall soon meet again,” he said, as he took her hand in his.

He climbed up at the back of the cart, and a moment after only the faint rumbling of the wheels broke the stillness. Undine stood in the tent door.

“Meet again! meet again!” Poor human hearts that must still their aching with such vain words. Meet again! Who ever met again? The child we love goes from us and comes back to us a man, and all others praise the change; but we, even while we run our fingers through his curls, we hunger for the little child that sat upon our knee.

We part with the friend of our childhood, and we say, “We part only for today; through life we shall often meet again,” and it may be we clasp hands often in the years that come and talk of the old days; but we know, though we never say it, that the two who parted have never met again, that the sea of time has run up between us, and we cannot touch. Who can part, forever; only when we come so close that nothing separates us can we meet again, only when what binds us is not my need of you or your need of me nor any chance circumstance, but a deep ingrained likeness of nature that cannot pass away.

“We shall meet again some day,” said Undine as she stood in the tent door, comforting herself with this great lie.

A little after the sun had risen, she hurried along page: 348 the path in the direction of the Toit's Pan Road, and stopped when she came to the last of the enclosures that lined it on either side. The coach would have to pass there, and she must see it; so she stood there waiting while the quickly moving passenger carts from Toit's Pan passed and repassed her, breaking the stillness of the quiet morning.

At last, after long waiting, it came with its great red tent, with its blowing bugle, with its eight prancing horses, with its crowded roof; and inside, just as it tore past her, she saw him. It was only a glimpse, but that was enough, for he looked bright and glad. He was speaking to the passenger who sat next him and laughing and peeling the orange he had found in his pocket. A piece of peel he threw out fell at the roadside, and she picked it up after the coach had passed.

“It is all right. He is happy, very happy,” she said, and turned to go back to her tent. “He is happy, very happy,” she kept on repeating to herself when she got back to the tent. Remnants of the tobacco she had been cutting still lay on the old sea-chest, the boots he had worn yesterday still lay beside it, and the half drunk cup of chocolate was hardly cold. She looked in at the door for a minute, and then went to her own tent.

Her own little tent, which she had said was so full and rich to her, which was so empty and silent now. She walked up and down, not daring to sit page: 349 down and rest. Well had she said to that hungry dog on that day long ago: “Go away, and do not follow me. If you follow me I shall love you and I, I have had pain enough.”

At last she sat down by the old packing-case and drew out the old papers, and the pens that had been unused so long. She took up the newspaper and scribbled all over the edges one of those stories in which the heart of Diogenes delighted. Its keynote was the very safe and comforting reflection that all love dies sooner or later; only that which has no existence, which the young dream of, lasts forever. It comforted her greatly that morning. After a few months she would be happy without him and almost forget this boy whom she had loved with a more yearning tenderness than her own little child.

“I will forget, I will forget everything, and live only in the present; then, soon, there will be no reason to forget, for this little love will fade away like the yearning for my monkey and the madness that looks so grotesque, and unreal now and which nothing could ever again bring back—nothing.”

The margins of the newspaper were full to overflowing and she was already crossing it over in every direction, when a shadow fell across the sunlight that streamed in through the tent door.

Some coolie bringing the milk he was accustomed to sell there, she thought, as she looked up to see page: 350 the figure of a man with his back turned to the entrance. The opening was so low that his head was not visible, but an elegant little black cane moved slowly backwards and forwards, and there was that in the cut of the black cloth coat and the hang of the trousers that carried her back from New Rush to that first meeting before the picture in Blair House. Soon the figure turned and Undine hardly knew what she expected to see, but it was only the very ugly face of a very black nigger that stuck itself in at the doorway.

“Have you done the shirts a girl brought here yesterday?” he asked in very good English and in a very leisurely and self-possessed manner. Evidently he had taken some Englishman, probably his master, as the model upon which to form himself. Undine brought him the shirts, which the swell nigger took with the extreme tips of his fingers, as though it were greatly derogatory to his dignity and he only submitted to a most painful necessity. Touching gracefully his woolless upper lip with the hand in which he held the cane, he said:

“If you want more work, I dare say you could get it if you come to our place—Mr. Albert Blair's.”

The nigger rolled out the name very full and with evident satisfaction, at the same time holding out a five-shilling piece to Undine with an air that clearly evinced how greatly he scorned the performing of so trivial an action. He thought the ironing- page: 351 woman was certainly half daft, or it might be drunk, for she stood in the tent door staring at him and never holding out her hand to receive the money. He was on the point of informing her of his opinion in very plain language when she said, “You can keep the money for yourself.”

There was no doubt now as to the ironing-woman's daftness or drunkenness, for who gives five shillings for nothing? But the nigger no longer felt himself under the painful necessity of informing her of the fact, and, great as his scorn for the five-shilling piece had appeared to be, it quickly found its way into his waistcoat pocket. In reply to a question from Undine he proceeded to inform her where his master's house might be found, and wrapping up the shirts in a newspaper he had brought for the purpose, and tucking them under his arm, he walked off switching his black cane.

Near evening Undine too went out, but in an opposite direction, and forgetting today even to button down her tent door. There was not a shilling in the bottle nor a whole slice of bread in the box, yet she was not going to look for work now. She was going to Diogenes, but the walk seemed a weary long one; it had never seemed so long before. Her legs ached, her head ached, and sometimes she grew dizzy.

Diogenes was not in her tub today. She was greatly excited and the tub seemed to confine her. page: 352 She was leaning against it and almost started to her feet when Undine appeared round the tent's corner.

“I've been so tired of waiting for you all these two days. I thought you would never come. Stoop down before the tub and shut your eyes tight and then look in and see what I've got for you,” cried Diogenes, giving two gentle claps with her hands, for once a perfect child in her delight. Undine did as she was told and looked in, to see the tiny rose bush adorned with one deep-bosomed red rosebud.

“Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it beautiful?” said Diogenes, enthusiastically clasping her hands. “Pick it; it's for you. No—you must not pick it. I will—and fasten it in your hair just like it was in my dream. Oh, how beautiful!”

Undine put the iron pot down in Diogenes' lap, but Diogenes' fingers were so tremulous with gladness that she almost uprooted the rose bush before the flower was severed from the stem. “Now,” she said, putting the old pot down at one side, “lay down your head and I will put it in.”

Undine sat down beside her and put her head in Diogenes' lap, and the child did and undid the hair half a score of times before the flower was fixed to her satisfaction.

“Now turn round and look at me,” she said, when all was done. But it was such a weary face that looked up at hers that Diogenes' face fell also.

“I had quite forgotten he went away this morn- morning page: 353 ing, and you must be sorry, you've taken care of him so long,” said Diogenes, who, in truth, for the last forty-eight hours had been gloriously oblivious of every existence save that of her wonderful rosebud.

Diogenes did not know what to say; so she resorted to dumb sympathy, which she did understand, and drew Undine's face very close to her and smoothed it with the palms of her little hands.

After a long quiet she said, “I love you better than anything, better even than my rose bush.” It was only a child's way of comforting, those few words of love and that smoothing her cheek with her little hands. A child's way, yet by it she paid back more than all the good that had been brought to her.

“It is nice to lie here and rest, but I must go,” said Undine, when the last rays of the sun were shining on the little green leaves of the rose bush, which stood just beyond the end of the tent where it could catch them.

“You are sick, too,” said Diogenes, noticing how she leaned her hand against the tub to help herself in rising.

“Not sick, only tired. I have not been so tired for many years. I want to sleep for a long, long time. I shall be better then.”

She smiled as she looked down into the earnest eyes that were fixed on her.

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“Come again soon, very soon,” said Diogenes, as Undine was going out of sight.

She did not answer, but turned round for a moment and looked back at her, still smiling. The rose had fallen out of her hair and she held it in her hand.

“You look just like you did in my dream,” Diogenes said; but Undine did not hear her, for she had turned to go.

It may be that in the years to come Diogenes shall grow into a great, coarse, red woman as her mother was before her—the mother of many children, the wife of many husbands whom she may drop as easily as she does every hour the words that are not choice.

It may be—but there will come hours when the one pure and tender memory of her childhood will come back to her, and her children will wonder why she speaks so softly and the men why she has no oath to throw back at them. They would wonder if they knew it was only the picture of that summer evening at New Rush and the little slight figure standing at the tent corner with the red rosebud in its hand, and its great white kappie, and the yellow evening sunlight streaming over it from behind.

As Undine had said, she was tired, very tired; but instead of going home she turned slowly to that part of the camp to which her little squint-eyed guide had once conducted her.

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She stopped when she came to the reed fence that encircled the home of the baby-faced golden-haired lady. She was on the veranda again this evening, but she was not alone now. Over her chair was leaning a man, whose head was bent so low over hers that the black beard mingled with the golden ripples on her forehead. They spoke very soft and low, and they did not notice Undine, for their backs were to her and their talk was very interesting. But a little boy, who sat behind them playing, now lifted his blue eyes to look at the woman on the other side of the hedge and caught sight of the bright rose she held. He slipped down from the veranda and stood before her.

“Give,” he said, and held out imperiously one small hand.

Undine dropped the rose into it and turned to go back to her tent.

“You must come,” whispered the dark-whiskered gentleman as he stooped low over the golden head. “Come if it is for only one short half hour. You may allow yourself to be robbed of all pleasure, but others must not be quite forgotten, you know; even if our claim to be considered is not very strong.”

The lady smiled very softly and smoothed out the fringe on her sleeve with her little pink finger.

“Surely you have done enough in coming to such a place as this. You need not renounce the world altogether; you are too young to do penance yet”; page: 356 and the gentleman's breath was warm on her cheek. Then she lifted her baby face up to his, and her eyes were just as they had been when she looked down at Undine, placid, smiling; there was no harm in them.

“I've been out two nights this week,” she said, “and people might think it strange, you know. The doctor said he was much worse today, and he would be so angry if they told him.”

It might have ended in her not going to the ball that night, but at that moment the child passed them with the bright flower in its hand.

“What a lovely flower!” said the mother, and she held out her hand for it; but the child clasped it tightly in his fist and held it close against his little breast.

It was only a moment's work for the gentleman to unclasp the little fingers and put the flower into the mother's hand. The child did not cry; he only pressed his little thin arched lips together and drooped the lids over the blue eyes with which he looked at them. He was only a baby: there was no sin in taking it. “You see the very gods have condescended to interfere in my behalf,” whispered the gentleman. “This rose means that you are to go and wear it here tonight.”

He lay it very softly on her breast and whispered words, so softly that only the ear in which they were spoken could catch them; and when the mother rose page: 357 to go into the house she said, “Well just for one hour, just for one, you know.”

And so she went to the ball that night and danced, the loveliest of all the women there, with that bright flower at her heart; and all praised her and looked at her.

And that night, alone, when the nigger who had been left to watch him had gone out to spend the five shillings, Albert Blair died.

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