The new man, Gregory Rose, sat at the door of his dwelling, his arms folded, his legs crossed, and a profound melancholy seeming to rest over his soul. His house was a little square daub-and-wattle building, far out in the karoo, two miles from the homestead. It was covered outside with a sombre coating of brown mud, two little panes being let into the walls for windows. Behind it were the sheep-kraals, and to the right a large dam, now principally containing baked mud. Far off the little kopje concealed the homestead, and was not itself an object conspicuous enough to relieve the dreary monotony of the landscape.
Before the door sat Gregory Rose in his shirt-sleeves, on a camp-stool, and ever and anon he sighed deeply. There was that in his countenance for which even his depressing circumstances failed to account. Again and again he looked at the little kopje, at the milk-pail at his side, and at the brown pony, who a short way off cropped the dry bushes–and sighed.
Presently he rose and went into his house. It was one tiny room, the whitewashed walls profusely covered with prints cut from the "Illustrated London News", and in which there was a noticeable preponderance of female faces and figures. A stretcher filled one end of the hut, and a rack for a gun and a little hanging looking-glass diversified the gable opposite, while in the centre stood a chair and table. All was scrupulously neat and clean, for Gregory kept a little duster folded in the corner of his table- drawer, just as he had seen his mother do, and every morning before he went out he said his prayers, and made his bed, and dusted the table and the legs of the chairs, and even the pictures on the wall and the gun-rack.
On this hot afternoon he took from beneath his pillow a watch-bag made by his sister Jemima, and took out the watch. Only half past four! With a suppressed groan he dropped it back and sat down beside the table. Half- past four! Presently he roused himself. He would write to his sister Jemima. He always wrote to her when he was miserable. She was his safety- valve. He forgot her when he was happy; but he used her when he was wretched.
He took out ink and paper. There was a family crest and motto on the latter, for the Roses since coming to the colony had discovered that they were of distinguished lineage. Old Rose himself, an honest English farmer, knew nothing of his noble descent; but his wife and daughter knew– especially his daughter. There were Roses in England who kept a park and dated from the Conquest. So the colonial "Rose Farm" became "Rose Manor" in remembrance of the ancestral domain, and the claim of the Roses to noble blood was established–in their own minds at least.
Gregory took up one of the white, crested sheets; but on deeper reflection he determined to take a pink one, as more suitable to the state of his feelings. He began:
"My Dear Jemima–"
Then he looked up into the little glass opposite. It was a youthful face reflected there, with curling brown beard and hair; but in the dark blue eyes there was a look of languid longing that touched him. He re-dipped his pen and wrote:
"When I look up into the little glass that hangs opposite me, I wonder if that changed and sad face–"
Here he sat still and reflected. It sounded almost as if he might be conceited or unmanly to be looking at his own face in the glass. No, that would not do. So he looked for another pink sheet and began again.
"Dear Sister,–It is hardly six months since I left you to come to this spot, yet could you now see me I know what you would say, I know what mother would say–'Can that be our Greg–that thing with the strange look in his eyes?'
"Yes, Jemima, it is your Greg, and the change has been coming over me ever since I came here; but it is greatest since yesterday. You know what sorrows I have passed through, Jemima; how unjustly I was always treated at school, the masters keeping me back and calling me a blockhead, though, as they themselves allowed, I had the best memory of any boy in the school, and could repeat whole books from beginning to end. You know how cruelly father always used me, calling me a noodle and a milksop, just because he couldn't understand my fine nature. You know how he has made a farmer of me instead of a minister, as I ought to have been; you know it all, Jemima; and how I have borne it all, not as a woman, who whines for every touch, but as a man should–in silence.
"But there are things, there is a thing, which the soul longs to pour forth into a kindred ear.
"Dear sister, have you ever known what it is to keep wanting and wanting and wanting to kiss some one's mouth, and you may not; to touch some one's hand, and you cannot? I am in love, Jemima.
"The old Dutchwoman from whom I hire this place has a little stepdaughter, and her name begins with 'E'.
"She is English. I do not know how her father came to marry a Boer-woman. It makes me feel so strange to put down that letter, that I can hardly go on writing 'E'. I've loved her ever since I came here. For weeks I have not been able to eat or drink; my very tobacco when I smoke has no taste; and I can remain for no more than five minutes in one place, and sometimes feel as though I were really going mad.
"Every evening I go there to fetch my milk. Yesterday she gave me some coffee. The spoon fell on the ground. She picked it up; when she gave it me her finger touched mine. Jemima, I do not know if I fancied it–I shivered hot, and she shivered too! I thought, 'It is all right; she will be mine; she loves me!' Just then, Jemima, in came a fellow, a great, coarse fellow, a German–a ridiculous fellow, with curls right down to his shoulders; it makes one sick to look at him. He's only a servant of the Boer-woman's, and a low, vulgar, uneducated thing; that's never been to boarding-school in his life. He had been to the next farm seeking sheep. When he came in she said, 'Good evening, Waldo. Have some coffee!' AND SHE KISSED HIM.
"All last night I heard nothing else but 'Have some coffee; have some coffee.' If I went to sleep for a moment I dreamed that her finger was pressing mine; but when I woke with a start I heard her say, 'Good evening, Waldo. Have some coffee!'
"Is this madness?
"I have not eaten a mouthful today. This evening I go and propose to her. If she refuses me I shall go and kill myself tomorrow. There is a dam of water close by. The sheep have drunk most of it up, but there is still enough if I tie a stone to my neck.
"It is a choice between death and madness. I can endure no more. If this should be the last letter you ever get from me, think of me tenderly, and forgive me. Without her, life would be a howling wilderness, a long tribulation. She is my affinity; the one love of my life, of my youth, of my manhood; my sunshine; my God-given blossom.
"'They never loved who dreamed that they loved once,
And who saith, 'I loved once'?–
Not angels, whose deep eyes look down through realms of light!'
"Your disconsolate brother, on what is, in all probability, the last and distracted night of his life.
"Gregory Nazianzen Rose.
"P.S.–Tell mother to take care of my pearl studs. I left them in the wash-hand-stand drawer. Don't let the children get hold of them.
"P.P.S.–I shall take this letter with me to the farm. If I turn down one corner you may know I have been accepted; if not, you may know it is all up with your heartbroken brother,
Gregory having finished this letter, read it over with much approval, put it in an envelope, addressed it, and sat contemplating the inkpot, somewhat relieved in mind.
The evening turned out chilly and very windy after the day's heat. From afar off, as Gregory neared the homestead on the brown pony, he could distinguish a little figure in a little red cloak at the door of the cow- kraal. Em leaned over the poles that barred the gate, and watched the frothing milk run through the black fingers of the herdsman, while the unwilling cows stood with tethered heads by the milking poles. She had thrown the red cloak over her own head, and held it under her chin with a little hand, to keep from her ears the wind, that playfully shook it, and tossed the little fringe of yellow hair into her eyes.
"Is it not too cold for you to be standing here?" said Gregory, coming softly close to her.
"Oh, no; it is so nice. I always come to watch the milking. That red cow with the short horns is bringing up the calf of the white cow that died. She loves it so–just as if it were her own. It is so nice to see her lick its little ears. Just look!"
"The clouds are black. I think it is going to rain tonight," said Gregory.
"Yes," answered Em, looking up as well as she could for the little yellow fringe.
"But I'm sure you must be cold," said Gregory, and put his hand under the cloak, and found there a small fist doubled up, soft, and very warm. He held it fast in his hand.
"Oh, Em, I love you better than all the world besides! Tell me, do you love me a little?"
"Yes, I do," said Em, hesitating, and trying softly to free her hand.
"Better than everything; better than all the world, darling?" he asked, bending down so low that the yellow hair was blown into his eyes.
"I don't know," said Em, gravely. "I do love you very much; but I love my cousin who is at school, and Waldo, very much. You see I have known them so long!"
"Oh, Em, do not talk to me so coldly!" Gregory cried, seizing the little arm that rested on the gate, and pressing it till she was half afraid. The herdsman had moved away to the other end of the kraal now, and the cows, busy with their calves, took no notice of the little human farce. "Em, if you talk so to me I will go mad! You must love me, love me better than all! You must give yourself to me. I have loved you since that first moment when I saw you walking by the stone wall with the jug in your hands. You were made for me, created for me! I will love you till I die! Oh, Em, do not be so cold, so cruel to me!"
He held her arm so tightly that her fingers relaxed their hold, and the cloak fluttered down on to the ground, and the wind played more roughly than ever with the little yellow head.
"I do love you very much," she said; "but I do not know if I want to marry you. I love you better than Waldo, but I can't tell if I love you better than Lyndall. If you would let me wait for a week I think perhaps I could tell you."
Gregory picked up the cloak and wrapped it round her.
"If you could but love me as I love you," he said; "but no woman can love as a man can. I will wait till Saturday. I will not once come near you till then. Good-bye! Oh, Em," he said, turning again, and twining his arm about her, and kissing her surprised little mouth, "if you are not my wife I cannot live. I have never loved another woman, and I never shall!– never, never!"
"You make me afraid," said Em. "Come, let us go, and I will fill your pail."
"I want no milk. Good-bye! You will not see me again till Saturday."
Late that night, when every one else had gone to bed, the yellow-haired little woman stood alone in the kitchen. She had come to fill the kettle for the next morning's coffee, and now stood before the fire. The warm reflection lit the grave old-womanish little face, that was so unusually thoughtful this evening.
"Better than all the world; better than everything; he loves me better than everything!" She said the words aloud, as if they were more easy to believe if she spoke them so. She had given out so much love in her little life, and had got none of it back with interest. Now one said, "I love you better than all the world." One loved her better than she loved him. How suddenly rich she was. She kept clasping and unclasping her hands. So a beggar feels who falls asleep on the pavement wet and hungry, and who wakes in a palace-hall with servants and lights, and a feast before him. Of course the beggar's is only a dream, and he wakes from it; and this was real.
Gregory had said to her, "I will love you as long as I live." She said the words over and over to herself like a song.
"I will send for him tomorrow, and I will tell him how I love him back," she said.
But Em needed not to send for him. Gregory discovered on reaching home that Jemima's letter was still in his pocket. And, therefore, much as he disliked the appearance of vacillation and weakness, he was obliged to be at the farmhouse before sunrise to post it.
"If I see her," Gregory said, "I shall only bow to her. She shall see that I am a man, one who keeps his word."
As to Jemima's letter, he had turned down one corner of the page, and then turned it back, leaving a deep crease. That would show that he was neither accepted nor rejected, but that matters were in an intermediate condition. It was a more poetical way then putting it in plain words.
Gregory was barely in time with his letter, for Waldo was starting when he reached the homestead, and Em was on the doorstep to see him off. When he had given the letter, and Waldo had gone, Gregory bowed stiffly and prepared to remount his own pony, but somewhat slowly. It was still early; none of the servants were about. Em came up close to him and put her little hand softly on his arm as he stood by his horse.
"I do love you best of all," she said. She was not frightened now, however much he kissed her. "I wish I was beautiful and nice," she added, looking up into his eyes as he held her against his breast.
"My darling, to me you are more beautiful than all the women in the world; dearer to me than everything it holds. If you were in hell I would go after you to find you there! If you were dead, though my body moved, my soul would be under the ground with you. All life as I pass with you in my arms will be perfect to me. It will pass, pass like a ray of sunshine."
Em thought how beautiful and grand his face was as she looked up into it. She raised her hand gently and put it on his forehead.
"You are so silent, so cold, my Em," he cried. "Have you nothing to say to me?"
A little shade of wonder filled her eyes.
"I will do everything you tell me," she said.
"What else could she say? Her idea of love was only service.
"Then, my own precious one, promise never to kiss that fellow again. I cannot bear that you should love any one but me. You must not! I will not have it! If every relation I had in the world were to die tomorrow, I would be quite happy if I still only had you! My darling, my love, why are you so cold? Promise me not to love him any more. If you asked me to do anything for you, I would do it, though it cost my life."
Em put her hand very gravely round his neck.
"I will never kiss him," she said, "and I will try not to love any one else. But I do not know if I will be able."
"Oh, my darling, I think of you all night, all day. I think of nothing else, love, nothing else," he said, folding his arms about her.
Em was a little conscience stricken; even that morning she had found time to remember that in six months her cousin would come back from school, and she had thought to remind Waldo of the lozenges for his cough, even when she saw Gregory coming.
"I do not know how it is," she said humbly, nestling to him, "but I cannot love you so much as you love me. Perhaps it is because I am only a woman; but I do love you as much as I can."
Now the Kaffer maids were coming from the huts. He kissed her again, eyes and mouth and hands, and left her.
Tant Sannie was well satisfied when told of the betrothment. She herself contemplated marriage within the year with one or other of her numerous vrijers, and she suggested that the weddings might take place together.
Em set to work busily to prepare her own household linen and wedding garments. Gregory was with her daily, almost hourly, and the six months which elapsed before Lyndall's return passed, as he felicitously phrased it, "like a summer night, when you are dreaming of some one you love."
Late one evening, Gregory sat by his little love, turning the handle of her machine as she drew her work through it, and they talked of the changes they would make when the Boer-woman was gone, and the farm belonged to them alone. There should be a new room here, and a kraal there. So they chatted on. Suddenly Gregory dropped the handle, and impressed a fervent kiss on the fat hand that guided the linen.
"You are so beautiful, Em," said the lover. "It comes over me in a flood suddenly how I love you."
"Tant Sannie says when I am her age no one will look at me; and it is true. My hands are as short and broad as a duck's foot, and my forehead is so low, and I haven't any nose. I can't be pretty."
She laughed softly. It was so nice to think he should be so blind.
"When my cousin comes tomorrow you will see a beautiful woman, Gregory," she added presently. "She is like a little queen: her shoulders are so upright, and her head looks as though it ought to have a little crown upon it. You must come to see her tomorrow as soon as she comes. I am sure you will love her."
"Of course I shall come to see her, since she is your cousin; but do you think I could ever think any woman as lovely as I think you?"
He fixed his seething eyes upon her.
"You could not help seeing that she is prettier," said Em, slipping her right hand into his; "but you will never be able to like any one so much as you like me."
Afterward, when she wished her lover good night, she stood upon the doorstep to call a greeting after him; and she waited, as she always did, till the brown pony's hoofs became inaudible behind the kopje.
Then she passed through the room where Tant Sannie lay snoring, and through the little room that was all draped in white, waiting for her cousin's return, on to her own room.
She went to the chest of drawers to put away the work she had finished, and sat down on the floor before the lowest drawer. In it were the things she was preparing for her marriage. Piles of white linen, and some aprons and quilts; and in a little box in the corner a spray of orange-blossom which she had bought from a smouse. There, too, was a ring Gregory had given her, and a veil his sister had sent, and there was a little roll of fine embroidered work which Trana had given her. It was too fine and good even for Gregory's wife–just right for something very small and soft. She would keep it. And she touched it gently with her forefinger, smiling; and then she blushed and hid it far behind the other things. She knew so well all that was in that drawer, and yet she turned them all over as though she saw them for the first time, packed them all out, and packed them all in, without one fold or crumple; and then sat down and looked at them.
Tomorrow evening when Lyndall came she would bring her here, and show it her all. Lyndall would so like to see it–the little wreath, and the ring, and the white veil! It would be so nice! Then Em fell to seeing pictures. Lyndall should live with them till she herself got married some day.
Every day when Gregory came home, tired from his work, he would look about and say, "Where is my wife? Has no one seen my wife? Wife, some coffee!" and she would give him some.
Em's little face grew very grave at last, and she knelt up and extended her hands over the drawer of linen.
"Oh, God!" she said, "I am so glad! I do not know what I have done that I should be so glad. Thank you!"