A fire is burning in the unused hearth of the cabin. The fuel blazes up, and lights the black rafters, and warms the faded red lions on the quilt, and fills the little room with a glow of warmth and light made brighter by contrast, for outside the night is chill and misty.
Before the open fireplace sits a stranger, his tall, slight figure reposing in the broken armchair, his keen blue eyes studying the fire from beneath delicately pencilled, drooping eyelids. One white hand plays thoughtfully with a heavy flaxen moustache; yet, once he starts, and for an instant the languid lids raise themselves; there is a keen, intent look upon the face as he listens for something. Then he leans back in his chair, fills his glass from the silver flask in his bag, and resumes his old posture.
Presently the door opens noiselessly. It is Lyndall, followed by Doss. Quietly as she enters, he hears her, and turns.
"I thought you were not coming."
"I waited till all had gone to bed. I could not come before."
She removed the shawl that enveloped her, and the stranger rose to offer her his chair; but she took her seat on a low pile of sacks before the window.
"I hardly see why I should be outlawed after this fashion," he said, reseating himself and drawing his chair a little nearer to her; "these are hardly the quarters one expects to find after travelling a hundred miles in answer to an invitation."
"I said, 'Come if you wish.'"
"And I did wish. You give me a cold reception."
"I could not take you to the house. Questions would be asked which I could not answer without prevarication."
"Your conscience is growing to have a certain virgin tenderness," he said, in a low, melodious voice.
"I have no conscience. I spoke one deliberate lie this evening. I said the man who had come looked rough, we had best not have him in the house; therefore I brought him here. It was a deliberate lie, and I hate lies. I tell them if I must, but they hurt me."
"Well, you do not tell lies to yourself, at all events. You are candid, so far."
She interrupted him.
"You got my short letter?"
"Yes; that is why I come. You sent a very foolish reply; you must take it back. Who is this fellow you talk of marrying?"
"A young farmer."
"Yes; he has gone to town to get things for our wedding."
"What kind of a fellow is he?"
"And you would rather marry him than me?"
"Yes; because you are not one."
"That is a novel reason for refusing to marry a man," he said, leaning his elbow on the table and watching her keenly.
"It is a wise one," she said shortly. "If I marry him I shall shake him off my hand when it suits me. If I remained with him for twelve months he would never have dared to kiss my hand. As far as I wish he should come, he comes, and no further. Would you ask me what you might and what you might not do?"
Her companion raised the moustache with a caressing movement from his lip and smiled. It was not a question that stood in need of any answer.
"Why do you wish to enter on this semblance of marriage?"
"Because there is only one point on which I have a conscience. I have told you so."
"Then why not marry me?"
"Because if once you have me you would hold me fast. I shall never be free again." She drew a long, low breath.
"What have you done with the ring I gave you?" he said.
"Sometimes I wear it; then I take it off and wish to throw it into the fire; the next day I put it on again, and sometimes I kiss it."
"So you do love me a little?"
"If you were not something more to me than any other man in the world, do you think–" She paused. "I love you when I see you; but when you are away from me I hate you."
"Then I fear I must be singularly invisible at the present moment," he said. Possibly if you were to look less fixedly into the fire you might perceive me."
He moved his chair slightly, so as to come between her and the firelight. She raised her eyes to his face.
"If you do love me," he asked her, "why will you not marry me?"
"Because, if I had been married to you for a year I should have come to my senses and seen that your hands and your voice are like the hands and the voice of any other man. I cannot quite see that now. But it is all madness. You call into activity one part of my nature; there is a higher part that you know nothing of, that you never touch. If I married you, afterward it would arise and assert itself, and I should hate you always, as I do now sometimes."
"I like you when you grow metaphysical and analytical," he said, leaning his face upon his hand. "Go a little further in your analysis; say, 'I love you with the right ventricle of my heart, but not the left, and with the left auricle of my heart, but not the right; and, this being the case, my affection for you is not of a duly elevated, intellectual and spiritual nature.' I like you when you get philosophical."
She looked quietly at him; he was trying to turn her own weapons against her.
"You are acting foolishly, Lyndall," he said, suddenly changing his manner, and speaking earnestly, "most foolishly. You are acting like a little child; I am surprised at you. It is all very well to have ideals and theories; but you know as well as any one can that they must not be carried into the practical world. I love you. I do not pretend that it is in any high, superhuman sense; I do not say that I should like you as well if you were ugly and deformed, or that I should continue to prize you whatever your treatment of me might be, or to love you though you were a spirit without any body at all. That is sentimentality for beardless boys. Every one not a mere child (and you are not a child, except in years) knows what love between a man and a woman means. I love you with that love. I should not have believed it possible that I could have brought myself twice to ask of any woman to be my wife, more especially one without wealth, without position, and who–"
"Yes–go on. Do not grow sorry for me. Say what you were going to–'who has put herself into my power, and who has lost the right of meeting me on equal terms.' Say what you think. At least we two may speak the truth to one another."
Then she added after a pause:
"I believe you do love me, as much as you possibly could love anything; and I believe that when you ask me to marry you you are performing the most generous act you ever have performed in the course of your life, or ever will; but, at the same time, if I had required your generosity, it would not have been shown me. If, when I got your letter a month ago, hinting at your willingness to marry me, I had at once written, imploring you to come, you would have read the letter. 'Poor little devil!' you would have said, and tore it up. The next week you would have sailed for Europe, and have sent me a check for a hundred and fifty pounds (which I would have thrown in the fire), and I would have heard no more of you."
The stranger smiled.
"But because I declined your proposal, and wrote that in three weeks I should be married to another, then what you call love woke up. Your man's love is a child's love for butterflies. You follow till you have the thing, and break it. If you have broken one wing, and the thing flies still, then you love it more than ever, and follow till you break both; then you are satisfied when it lies still on the ground."
"You are profoundly wise in the ways of the world; you have seen far into life," he said.
He might as well have sneered at the firelight.
"I have seen enough to tell me that you love me because you cannot bear to be resisted, and want to master me. You liked me at first because I treated you and all men with indifference. You resolved to have me because I seemed unattainable. This is all your love means."
He felt a strong inclination to stoop down and kiss the little lips that defied him; but he restrained himself. He said, quietly: "And you loved me–"
"Because you are strong. You are the first man I ever was afraid of. And"–a dreamy look came into her face–"because I like to experience, I like to try. You don't understand that."
"Well, since you will not marry me, may I inquire what your intentions are, the plan you wrote of. You asked me to come and hear it, and I have come."
"I said, 'Come if you wish.' If you agree to it, well; if not, I marry on Monday."
She was still looking beyond him at the fire.
"I cannot marry you," she said slowly, "because I cannot be tied; but if you wish, you may take me away with you, and take care of me; then when we do not love any more we can say good-bye. I will not go down country," she added; "I will not go to Europe. You must take me to the Transvaal. That is out of the world. People we meet there we need not see again in our future lives."
"Oh, my darling," he said, bending tenderly, and holding his hand out to her, "why will you not give yourself entirely to me? One day you will desert me and go to another."
She shook her head without looking at him.
"No, life is too long. But I will go with you."
"Tomorrow. I have told them that before daylight I go to the next farm. I will write from the town and tell them the facts. I do not want them to trouble me; I want to shake myself free of these old surroundings; I want them to lose sight of me. You can understand that is necessary for me."
He seemed lost in consideration; then he said:
"It is better to have you on those conditions than not at all. If you will have it, let it be so."
He sat looking at her. On her face was the weary look that rested there so often now when she sat alone. Two months had not passed since they parted; but the time had set its mark on her. He looked at her carefully, from the brown, smooth head to the little crossed feet on the floor. A worn look had grown over the little face, and it made its charm for him stronger. For pain and time, which trace deep lines and write a story on a human face, have a strangely different effect on one face and another. The face that is only fair, even very fair, they mar and flaw; but to the face whose beauty is the harmony between that which speaks from within and the form through which it speaks, power is added by all that causes the outer man to bear more deeply the impress of the inner. The pretty woman fades with the roses on her cheeks, and the girlhood that lasts an hour; the beautiful woman finds her fullness of bloom only when a past has written itself on her, and her power is then most irresistible when it seems going.
From under their half-closed lids the keen eyes looked down at her. Her shoulders were bent; for a moment the little figure had forgotten its queenly bearing, and drooped wearily; the wide, dark eyes watched the fire very softly.
It certainly was not in her power to resist him, nor any strength in her that made his own at that moment grow soft as he looked at her.
He touched one little hand that rested on her knee.
"Poor little thing!" he said; "you are only a child."
She did not draw her hand away from his, and looked up at him.
"You are very tired?"
She looked into his eyes as a little child might whom a long day's play had saddened.
He lifted her gently up, and sat her on his knee.
"Poor little thing!" he said.
She turned her face to his shoulder, and buried it against his neck; he wound his strong arm about her, and held her close to him. When she had sat for a long while, he drew with his hand the face down, and held it against his arm. He kissed it, and then put it back in its old resting- place.
"Don't you want to talk to me?"
"Have you forgotten the night in the avenue?"
He could feel that she shook her head.
"Do you want to be quiet now?"
They sat quite still, excepting that only sometimes he raised her fingers softly to his mouth.
Doss, who had been asleep in the corner, waking suddenly, planted himself before them, his wiry legs moving nervously, his yellow eyes filled with anxiety. He was not at all sure that she was not being retained in her present position against her will, and was not a little relieved when she sat up and held out her hand for the shawl.
"I must go," she said.
The stranger wrapped the shawl very carefully about her.
"Keep it close around your face, Lyndall; it is very damp outside. Shall I walk with you to the house?"
"No. Lie down and rest; I will come and wake you at three o'clock."
She lifted her face that he might kiss it, and, when he had kissed it once, she still held it that he might kiss it again. Then he let her out. He had seated himself at the fireplace, when she reopened the door.
"Have you forgotten anything?"
She gave one long, lingering look at the old room. When she was gone, and the door shut, the stranger filled his glass, and sat at the table sipping it thoughtfully.
The night outside was misty and damp; the faint moonlight, trying to force its way through the thick air, made darkly visible the outlines of the buildings. The stones and walls were moist, and now and then a drop, slowly collecting, fell from the eaves to the ground. Doss, not liking the change from the cabin's warmth, ran quickly to the kitchen doorstep; but his mistress walked slowly past him, and took her way up the winding footpath that ran beside the stone wall of the camps. When she came to the end of the last camp, she threaded her way among the stones and bushes till she reached the German's grave. Why she had come there she hardly knew; she stood looking down. Suddenly she bent and put one hand on the face of a wet stone.
"I shall never come to you again," she said.
Then she knelt on the ground, and leaned her face upon the stones.
"Dear old man, good old man, I am so tired!" she said (for we will come to the dead to tell secrets we would never have told to the living). I am so tired. There is light, there is warmth," she wailed; "why am I alone, so hard, so cold? I am so weary of myself! It is eating my soul to its core- -self, self, self! I cannot bear this life! I cannot breathe, I cannot live! Will nothing free me from myself?" She pressed her cheek against the wooden post. "I want to love! I want something great and pure to lift me to itself! Dear old man, I cannot bear it any more! I am so cold, so hard, so hard; will no one help me?"
The water gathered slowly on her shawl, and fell on to the wet stones; but she lay there crying bitterly. For so the living soul will cry to the dead, and the creature to its God; and of all this crying there comes nothing. The lifting up of the hands brings no salvation; redemption is from within, and neither from God nor man; it is wrought out by the soul itself, with suffering and through time.
Doss, on the kitchen doorstep, shivered, and wondered where his mistress stayed so long; and once, sitting sadly there in the damp, he had dropped asleep, and dreamed that old Otto gave him a piece of bread, and patted him on the head, and when he woke his teeth chattered, and he moved to another stone to see if it was drier. At last he heard his mistress' step, and they went into the house together. She lit a candle, and walked to the Boer-woman's bedroom. On a nail under the lady in pink hung the key of the wardrobe. She took it down and opened the great press. From a little drawer she took fifty pounds (all she had in the world), relocked the door, and turned to hang up the key. The marks of tears were still on her face, but she smiled. Then she paused, hesitated.
"Fifty pounds for a lover! A noble reward!" she said, and opened the wardrobe and returned the notes to the drawer, where Em might find them.
Once in her own room, she arranged the few articles she intended to take tomorrow, burnt her old letters, and then went back to the front room to look at the time. There were two hours yet before she must call him. She sat down at the dressing-table to wait, and leaned her elbows on it, and buried her face in her hands. The glass reflected the little brown head with its even parting, and the tiny hands on which it rested. "One day I will love something utterly, and then I will be better," she said once. Presently she looked up. The large, dark eyes from the glass looked back at her. She looked deep into them.
"We are all alone, you and I," she whispered; "no one helps us, no one understands us; but we will help ourselves." The eyes looked back at her. There was a world of assurance in their still depths. So they had looked at her ever since she could remember, when it was but a small child's face above a blue pinafore. "We shall never be quite alone, you and I," she said; "we shall always be together, as we were when we were little."
The beautiful eyes looked into the depths of her soul.
"We are not afraid; we will help ourselves!" she said. She stretched out her hand and pressed it over them on the glass. "Dear eyes! we will never be quite alone till they part us–till then!"