"I didn't know before you were so fond of riding hard," said Gregory to his little betrothed.
They were cantering slowly on the road to Oom Muller's on the morning of the wedding.
"Do you call this riding hard?" asked Em in some astonishment.
"Of course I do! It's enough to break the horses' necks, and knock one up for the whole day besides," he added testily; then twisted his head to look at the buggy that came on behind. "I thought Waldo was such a mad driver; they are taking it easily enough today," said Gregory. "One would think the black stallions were lame."
"I suppose they want to keep out of our dust," said Em. "See, they stand still as soon as we do."
Perceiving this to be the case, Gregory rode on.
"It's all that horse of yours: she kicks up such a confounded dust, I can't stand it myself," he said.
Meanwhile the cart came on slowly enough.
"Take the reins," said Lyndall, and "and make them walk. I want to rest and watch their hoofs today–not to be exhilarated; I am so tired."
She leaned back in her corner, and Waldo drove on slowly in the grey dawn light along the level road. They passed the very milk-bush behind which so many years before the old German had found the Kaffer woman. But their thoughts were not with him that morning: they were the thoughts of the young, that run out to meet the future, and labour in the present. At last he touched her arm.
"What is it?"
"I feared you had gone to sleep and might be jolted out," he said; "you sat so quietly."
"No; do not talk to me; I am not asleep;" but after a time she said suddenly: "It must be a terrible thing to bring a human being into the world."
Waldo looked round; she sat drawn into the corner, her blue cloud wound tightly about her, and she still watched the horses' feet. Having no comment to offer on her somewhat unexpected remark, he merely touched up his horses.
"I have no conscience, none," she added; "but I would not like to bring a soul into this world. When it sinned and when it suffered something like a dead hand would fall on me–'You did it, you, for your own pleasure you created this thing! See your work!' If it lived to be eighty it would always hang like a millstone round my neck, have the right to demand good from me, and curse me for its sorrow. A parent is only like to God–if his work turns out bad, so much the worse for him; he dare not wash his hands of it. Time and years can never bring the day when you can say to your child: 'Soul, what have I to do with you?'"
Waldo said dreamingly:
"It is a marvellous thing that one soul should have power to cause another."
She heard the words as she heard the beating of the horses' hoofs; her thoughts ran on in their own line.
"They say, 'God sends the little babies.' Of all the dastardly revolting lies men tell to suit themselves, I hate that most. I suppose my father said so when he knew he was dying of consumption, and my mother when she knew she had nothing to support me on, and they created me to feed like a dog from stranger hands. Men do not say God sends the books, or the newspaper articles, or the machines they make; and then sigh, and shrug their shoulders and say they can't help it. Why do they say so about other things? Liars! 'God sends the little babies!'" She struck her foot fretfully against the splashboard. "The small children say so earnestly. They touch the little stranger reverently who has just come from God's far country, and they peep about the room to see if not one white feather has dropped from the wing of the angel that brought him. On their lips the phrase means much; on all others it is a deliberate lie. Noticeable, too," she said, dropping in an instant from the passionate into a low, mocking tone, "when people are married, though they should have sixty children, they throw the whole onus on God. When they are not, we hear nothing about God's having sent them. When there has been no legal contract between the parents, who sends the little children then? The devil perhaps!" She laughed her little silvery, mocking laugh. "Odd that some men should come from hell and some from heaven, and yet all look so much alike when they get here."
Waldo wondered at her. He had not the key to her thoughts, and did not see the string on which they were strung. She drew her cloud tighter about her.
"It must be very nice to believe in the devil," she said; "I wish I did. If it would be of any use I would pray three hours night and morning on my bare knees, 'God, let me believe in Satan.' He is so useful to those people who do. They may be as selfish and as sensual as they please, and, between God's will and the devil's action, always have some one to throw their sin on. But we, wretched unbelievers, we bear our own burdens: we must say, 'I myself did it, I. Not God, not Satan; I myself!' That is the sting that strikes deep. Waldo," she said gently, with a sudden and complete change of manner, "I like you so much, I love you." She rested her cheek softly against his shoulder. "When I am with you I never know that I am a woman and you are a man; I only know that we are both things that think. Other men when I am with them, whether I love them or not, they are mere bodies to me; but you are a spirit; I like you. Look," she said quickly, sinking back into her corner, "what a pretty pinkness there is on all the hilltops! The sun will rise in a moment."
Waldo lifted his eyes to look round over the circle of golden hills; and the horses, as the first sunbeams touched them, shook their heads and champed their bright bits, till the brass settings in their harness glittered again.
It was eight o'clock when they neared the farmhouse: a red-brick building, with kraals to the right and a small orchard to the left. Already there were signs of unusual life and bustle: one cart, a wagon, and a couple of saddles against the wall betokened the arrival of a few early guests, whose numbers would soon be largely increased. To a Dutch country wedding guests start up in numbers astonishing to one who has merely ridden through the plains of sparsely-inhabited karoo.
As the morning advances, riders on many shades of steeds appear from all directions, and add their saddles to the long rows against the walls, shake hands, drink coffee, and stand about outside in groups to watch the arriving carts and ox-wagons, as they are unburdened of their heavy freight of massive Tantes and comely daughters, followed by swarms of children of all sizes, dressed in all manner of print and moleskin, who are taken care of by Hottentot, Kaffer, and half-caste nurses, whose many-shaded complexions, ranging from light yellow up to ebony black, add variety to the animated scene.
Everywhere is excitement and bustle, which gradually increases as the time for the return of the wedding-party approaches. Preparations for the feast are actively advancing in the kitchen; coffee is liberally handed round, and amid a profound sensation, and the firing of guns, the horse-wagon draws up, and the wedding-party alight. Bride and bridegroom, with their attendants, march solemnly to the marriage-chamber, where bed and box are decked out in white, with ends of ribbon and artificial flowers, and where on a row of chairs the party solemnly seat themselves. After a time bridesmaid and best man rise, and conduct in with ceremony each individual guest, to wish success and to kiss bride and bridegroom.
Then the feast is set on the table, and it is almost sunset before the dishes are cleared away, and the pleasure of the day begins. Everything is removed from the great front room, and the mud floor, well rubbed with bullock's blood, glistens like polished mahogany. The female portion of the assembly flock into the side-rooms to attire themselves for the evening; and re-issue clad in white muslin, and gay with bright ribbons and brass jewelry. The dancing begins as the first tallow candles are stuck up about the walls, the music coming from a couple of fiddlers in a corner of the room. Bride and bridegroom open the ball, and the floor is soon covered with whirling couples, and every one's spirits rise. The bridal pair mingle freely in the throng, and here and there a musical man sings vigorously as he drags his partner through the Blue Water or John Speriwig; boys shout and applaud, and the enjoyment and confusion are intense, till eleven o'clock comes. By this time the children who swarm in the side- rooms are not to be kept quiet longer, even by hunches of bread and cake; there is a general howl and wail, that rises yet higher than the scraping of fiddles, and mothers rush from their partners to knock small heads together, and cuff little nursemaids, and force the wailers down into unoccupied corners of beds, under tables and behind boxes. In half an hour every variety of childish snore is heard on all sides, and it has become perilous to raise or set down a foot in any of the side-rooms lest a small head or hand should be crushed.
Now too the busy feet have broken the solid coating of the floor, and a cloud of fine dust arises, that makes a yellow halo round the candles, and sets asthmatic people coughing, and grows denser, till to recognise any one on the opposite side of the room becomes impossible, and a partner's face is seen through a yellow mist.
At twelve o'clock the bride is led to the marriage-chamber and undressed; the lights are blown out, and the bridegroom is brought to the door by the best man, who gives him the key; then the door is shut and locked, and the revels rise higher than ever. There is no thought of sleep till morning, and no unoccupied spot where sleep may be found.
It was at this stage of the proceedings on the night of Tant Sannie's wedding that Lyndall sat near the doorway in one of the side-rooms, to watch the dancers as they appeared and disappeared in the yellow cloud of dust. Gregory sat moodily in a corner of the large dancing-room. His little betrothed touched his arm.
"I wish you would go and ask Lyndall to dance with you," she said; "she must be so tired; she has sat still the whole evening."
"I have asked her three times," replied her lover shortly. "I'm not going to be her dog, and creep to her feet, just to give her the pleasure of kicking me–not for you, Em, nor for anybody else."
"Oh, I didn't know you had asked her, Greg," said his little betrothed, humbly; and she went away to pour out coffee.
Nevertheless, some time after Gregory found he had shifted so far round the room as to be close to the door where Lyndall sat. After standing for some time he inquired whether he might not bring her a cup of coffee.
She declined; but still he stood on (why should he not stand there as well as anywhere else?), and then he stepped into the bedroom.
"May I not bring you a stove, Miss Lyndall, to put your feet on?"
He sought for one, and put it under her feet.
"There is a draught from that broken window: shall I stuff something in the pane?"
"No, we want air."
Gregory looked round, but nothing else suggesting itself, he sat down on a box on the opposite side of the door. Lyndall sat before him, her chin resting in her hand; her eyes, steel-grey by day, but black by night, looked through the doorway into the next room. After a time he thought she had entirely forgotten his proximity, and he dared to inspect the little hands and neck as he never dared when he was in momentary dread of the eyes being turned upon him.
She was dressed in black, which seemed to take her yet further from the white-clad, gewgawed women about her; and the little hands were white, and the diamond ring glittered. Where had she got that ring? He bent forward a little and tried to decipher the letters, but the candle-light was too faint. When he looked up her eyes were fixed on him. She was looking at him–not, Gregory felt, as she had ever looked at him before; not as though he were a stump or a stone that chance had thrown in her way. Tonight, whether it were critically, or kindly, or unkindly, he could not tell, but she looked at him, at the man, Gregory Rose, with attention. A vague elation filled him. He clinched his fist tight to think of some good idea he might express to her; but of all those profound things he had pictured himself as saying to her, when he sat alone in the daub-and-wattle house, not one came. He said, at last:
"These Boer dances are very low things;" and then, as soon as it had gone from him, he thought it was not a clever remark, and wished it back.
Before Lyndall replied Em looked in at the door.
"Oh, come," she said; "they are going to have the cushion-dance. I do not want to kiss any of these fellows. Take me quickly."
She slipped her hand into Gregory's arm.
"It is so dusty, Em; do you care to dance any more?" he asked, without rising.
"Oh, I do not mind the dust, and the dancing rests me."
But he did not move.
"I feel tired; I do not think I shall dance again," he said.
Em withdrew her hand, and a young farmer came to the door and bore her off.
"I have often imagined," remarked Gregory–but Lyndall had risen.
"I am tired," she said. "I wonder where Waldo is; he must take me home. These people will not leave off till morning, I suppose; it is three already."
She made her way past the fiddlers, and a bench full of tired dancers, and passed out at the front door. On the stoep a group of men and boys were smoking, peeping in at the windows, and cracking coarse jokes. Waldo was certainly not among them, and she made her way to the carts and wagons drawn up at some distance from the homestead.
"Waldo," she said, peering into a large cart, "is that you? I am so dazed with the tallow candles, I see nothing."
He had made himself a place between the two seats. She climbed up and sat on the sloping floor in front.
"I thought I should find you here," she said, drawing her skirt up about her shoulders. "You must take me home presently, but not now."
She leaned her head on the seat near to his, and they listened in silence to the fitful twanging of the fiddles as the night-wind bore it from the farmhouse, and to the ceaseless thud of the dancers, and the peals of gross laughter. She stretched out her little hand to feel for his.
"It is so nice to lie here and hear that noise," she said. "I like to feel that strange life beating up against me. I like to realise forms of life utterly unlike mine." She drew a long breath. "When my own life feels small, and I am oppressed with it, I like to crush together, and see it in a picture, in an instant, a multitude of disconnected unlike phases of human life–a mediaeval monk with his string of beads pacing the quiet orchard, and looking up from the grass at his feet to the heavy fruit- trees; little Malay boys playing naked on a shining sea-beach; a Hindoo philosopher alone under his banyan tree, thinking, thinking, thinking, so that in the thought of God he may lose himself; a troop of Bacchanalians dressed in white, with crowns of vine-leaves, dancing along the Roman streets; a martyr on the night of his death looking through the narrow window to the sky, and feeling that already he has the wings that shall bear him up" (she moved her hand dreamily over her face); "an epicurean discoursing at a Roman bath to a knot of his disciples on the nature of happiness; a Kaffer witchdoctor seeking for herbs by moonlight, while from the huts on the hillside come the sound of dogs barking, and the voices of women and children; a mother giving bread-and-milk to her children in little wooden basins and singing the evening song. I like to see it all; I feel it run through me–that life belongs to me; it makes my little life larger, it breaks down the narrow walls that shut me in."
She sighed, and drew a long breath.
"Have you made any plans?" she asked him presently.
"Yes," he said, the words coming in jets, with pauses between; "I will take the grey mare–I will travel first–I will see the world–then I will find work."
"I do not know."
She made a little impatient movement.
"That is no plan; travel–see the world–find work! If you go into the world aimless, without a definite object, dreaming–dreaming, you will be definitely defeated, bamboozled, knocked this way and that. In the end you will stand with your beautiful life all spent, and nothing to show. They talk of genius–it is nothing but this, that a man knows what he can do best, and does it, and nothing else. Waldo," she said, knitting her little fingers closer among his, "I wish I could help you; I wish I could make you see that you must decide what you will be and do. It does not matter what you choose–be a farmer, businessman, artist, what you will–but know your aim, and live for that one thing. We have only one life. The secret of success is concentration; wherever there has been a great life, or a great work, that has gone before. Taste everything a little, look at everything a little; but live for one thing. Anything is possible to a man who knows his end and moves straight for it, and for it alone. I will show you what I mean," she said, concisely; "words are gas till you condense them into pictures."
"Suppose a woman, young, friendless as I am, the weakest thing on God's earth. But she must make her way through life. What she would be she cannot be because she is a woman; so she looks carefully at herself and the world about her, to see where her path must be made.
"There is no one to help her; she must help herself. She looks. These things she has–a sweet voice, rich in subtile intonations; a fair, very fair face, with a power of concentrating in itself, and giving expression to, feelings that otherwise must have been dissipated in words; a rare power of entering into other lives unlike her own, and intuitively reading them aright. These qualities she has. How shall she use them? A poet, a writer, needs only the mental; what use has he for a beautiful body that registers clearly mental emotions? And the painter wants an eye for form and colour, and the musician an ear for time and tune, and the mere drudge has no need for mental gifts.
"But there is one art in which all she has would be used, for which they are all necessary–the delicate expressive body, the rich voice, the power of mental transposition. The actor, who absorbs and then reflects from himself other human lives, needs them all, but needs not much more. This is her end; but how to reach it? Before her are endless difficulties: seas must be crossed, poverty must be endured, loneliness, want. She must be content to wait long before she can even get her feet upon the path. If she has made blunders in the past, if she has weighted herself with a burden which she must bear to the end, she must but bear the burden bravely, and labour on. There is no use in wailing and repentance here: the next world is the place for that; this life is too short. By our errors we see deeper into life. They help us." She waited for a while. "If she does all this–if she waits patiently, if she is never cast down, never despairs, never forgets her end, moves straight toward it, bending men and things most unlikely to her purpose–she must succeed at last. Men and things are plastic; they part to the right and left when one comes among them moving in a straight line to one end. I know it by my own little experience," she said. "Long years ago I resolved to be sent to school. It seemed a thing utterly out of my power; but I waited, I watched, I collected clothes, I wrote, took my place at the school; when all was ready I bore with my full force on the Boer-woman, and she sent me at last. It was a small thing; but life is made up of small things, as a body is built up of cells. What has been done in small things can be done in large. Shall be," she said softly.
Waldo listened. To him the words were no confession, no glimpse into the strong, proud, restless heart of the woman. They were general words with a general application. He looked up into the sparkling sky with dull eyes.
"Yes," he said; "but when we lie and think, and think, we see that there is nothing worth doing. The universe is so large, and man is so small–"
She shook her head quickly.
"But we must not think so far; it is madness, it is a disease. We know that no man's work is great, and stands forever. Moses is dead, and the prophets and the books that our grandmothers fed on the mould is eating. Your poet and painter and actor,–before the shouts that applaud them have died their names grow strange, they are milestones that the world has passed. Men have set their mark on mankind forever, as they thought; but time has washed it out as it has washed out mountains and continents." She raised herself on her elbow. "And what if we could help mankind, and leave the traces of our work upon it to the end? Mankind is only an ephemeral blossom on the tree of time; there were others before it opened; there will be others after it has fallen. Where was man in the time of the dicynodont, and when hoary monsters wallowed in the mud? Will he be found in the aeons that are to come? We are sparks, we are shadows, we are pollen, which the next wind will carry away. We are dying already; it is all a dream.
"I know that thought. When the fever of living is on us, when the desire to become, to know, to do, is driving us mad, we can use it as an anodyne, to still the fever and cool our beating pulses. But it is a poison, not a food. If we live on it it will turn our blood to ice; we might as well be dead. We must not, Waldo; I want your life to be beautiful, to end in something. You are nobler and stronger than I," she said; "and as much better as one of God's great angels is better than a sinning man. Your life must go for something."
"Yes, we will work," he said.
She moved closer to him and lay still, his black curls touching her smooth little head.
Doss, who had lain at his master's side, climbed over the bench, and curled himself up in her lap. She drew her skirt up over him, and the three sat motionless for a long time.
"Waldo," she said, suddenly, "they are laughing at us."
"Who?" he asked, starting up.
"They–the stars!" she said, softly. "Do you not see? There is a little white, mocking finger pointing down at us from each one of them! We are talking of tomorrow and tomorrow, and our hearts are so strong; we are not thinking of something that can touch us softly in the dark and make us still forever. They are laughing at us Waldo."
Both sat looking upward.
"Do you ever pray?" he asked her in a low voice.
"I never do; but I might when I look up there. I will tell you," he added, in a still lower voice, "where I could pray. If there were a wall of rock on the edge of a world, and one rock stretched out far, far into space, and I stood alone upon it, alone, with stars above me, and stars below me,–I would not say anything; but the feeling would be prayer."
There was an end to their conversation after that, and Doss fell asleep on her knee. At last the night-wind grew very chilly.
"Ah," she said, shivering, and drawing the skirt about her shoulders, "I am cold. Span-in the horses, and call me when you are ready."
She slipped down and walked toward the house, Doss stiffly following her, not pleased at being roused. At the door she met Gregory.
"I have been looking for you everywhere; may I not drive you home?" he said.
"Waldo drives me," she replied, passing on; and it appeared to Gregory that she looked at him in the old way, without seeing him. But before she had reached the door an idea had occurred to her, for she turned.
"If you wish to drive me you may."
Gregory went to look for Em, whom he found pouring out coffee in the back room. He put his hand quickly on her shoulder.
"You must ride with Waldo; I am going to drive your cousin home."
"But I can't come just now, Greg; I promised Tant Annie Muller to look after the things while she went to rest a little."
"Well, you can come presently, can't you? I didn't say you were to come now. I'm sick of this thing," said Gregory, turning sharply on his heel. "Why must I sit up the whole night because your stepmother chooses to get married?"
"Oh, it's all right, Greg, I only meant–"
But he did not hear her, and a man had come up to have his cup filled.
An hour after Waldo came in to look for her, and found her still busy at the table.
"The horses are ready," he said; "but if you would like to have one dance more I will wait."
She shook her head wearily.
"No; I am quite ready. I want to go."
And soon they were on the sandy road the buggy had travelled an hour before. Their horses, with heads close together, nodding sleepily as they walked in the starlight, you might have counted the rise and fall of their feet in the sand; and Waldo in his saddle nodded drowsily also. Only Em was awake, and watched the starlit road with wide-open eyes. At last she spoke.
"I wonder if all people feel so old, so very old, when they get to be seventeen?"
"Not older than before," said Waldo sleepily, pulling at his bridle.
Presently she said again:
"I wish I could have been a little child always. You are good then. You are never selfish; you like every one to have everything; but when you are grown up there are some things you like to have all to yourself, you don't like any one else to have any of them."
"Yes," said Waldo sleepily, and she did not speak again.
When they reached the farmhouse all was dark, for Lyndall had retired as soon as they got home.
Waldo lifted Em from her saddle, and for a moment she leaned her head on his shoulder and clung to him.
"You are very tired," he said, as he walked with her to the door; "let me go in and light a candle for you."
"No, thank you; it is all right," she said. "Good night, Waldo, dear."
But when she went in she sat long alone in the dark.