Slowly over the flat came a cart. On the back seat sat Gregory, his arms folded, his hat drawn over his eyes. A Kaffer boy sat on the front seat driving, and at his feet sat Doss, who, now and again, lifted his nose and eyes above the level of the splashboard, to look at the surrounding country; and then, with an exceedingly knowing wink of his left eye, turned to his companions, thereby intimating that he clearly perceived his whereabouts. No one noticed the cart coming. Waldo, who was at work at his carpenter's table in the wagon-house, saw nothing, till chancing to look down he perceived Doss standing before him, the legs trembling, the little nose wrinkled, and a series of short suffocating barks giving utterance to his joy at reunion.
Em, whose eyes had ached with looking out across the plain, was now at work in a back room, and knew nothing till, looking up, she saw Gregory, with his straw hat and blue eyes, standing in the doorway. He greeted her quietly, hung his hat up in its old place behind the door, and for any change in his manner or appearance he might have been gone only the day before to fetch letters from the town. Only his beard was gone, and his face was grown thinner. He took off his leather gaiters, said the afternoon was hot and the roads dusty, and asked for some tea. They talked of wool, and the cattle, and the sheep, and Em gave him the pile of letters that had come for him during the months of absence, but of the thing that lay at their hearts neither said anything. Then he went out to look at the kraals, and at supper Em gave him hot cakes and coffee. They talked about the servants, and then ate their meal in quiet. She asked no questions. When it was ended Gregory went into the front room, and lay in the dark on the sofa.
"Do you not want a light?" Em asked, venturing to look in.
"No," he answered; then presently called to her, "Come and sit here; I want to talk to you."
She came and sat on a footstool near him.
"Do you wish to hear anything?" he asked.
"Yes, if it does not hurt you."
"What difference does it make to me?" he said. "If I talk or am silent, is there any change?"
Yet he lay quiet for a long time. The light through the open door showed him to her, where he lay, with his arm thrown across his eyes. At last he spoke. Perhaps it was a relief to him to speak.
To Bloemfontein in the Free State, to which through an agent he had traced them, Gregory had gone. At the hotel where Lyndall and her stranger had stayed he put up; he was shown the very room in which they had slept. The coloured boy who had driven them to the next town told him in which house they had boarded, and Gregory went on. In that town he found they had left the cart, and bought a spider and four greys, and Gregory's heart rejoiced. Now indeed it would be easy to trace their course. And he turned his steps northward.
At the farmhouses where he stopped the ooms and tantes remembered clearly the spider with its four grey horses. At one place the Boer-wife told how the tall, blue-eyed Englishman had bought milk, and asked the way to the next farm. At the next farm the Englishman had bought a bunch of flowers, and given half a crown for them to the little girl. It was quite true; the Boer-mother made her get it out of the box and show it. At the next place they had slept. Here they told him that the great bulldog, who hated all strangers, had walked in in the evening and laid its head in the lady's lap. So at every place he heard something, and traced them step by step.
At one desolate farm the Boer had a good deal to tell. The lady had said she liked a wagon that stood before the door. Without asking the price the Englishman had offered a hundred and fifty pounds for the old thing, and bought oxen worth ten pounds for sixteen. The Dutchman chuckled, for he had the Salt-riem's money in the box under his bed. Gregory laughed too, in silence; he could not lose sight of them now, so slowly they would have to move with that cumbrous ox-wagon. Yet, when that evening came, and he reached a little wayside inn, no one could tell him anything of the travellers.
The master, a surly creature, half stupid with Boer-brandy, sat on the bench before the door smoking. Gregory sat beside him, questioning, but he smoked on. He remembered nothing of such strangers. How should he know who had been there months and months before? He smoked on. Gregory, very weary, tried to wake his memory, said that the lady he was seeking for was very beautiful, had a little mouth, and tiny, very tiny, feet. The man only smoked on as sullenly as at first. What were little, very little, mouths and feet to him. But his daughter leaned out in the window above. She was dirty and lazy, and liked to loll there when travellers came, to hear the men talk, but she had a soft heart. Presently a hand came out of the window, and a pair of velvet slippers touched his shoulder, tiny slippers with black flowers. He pulled them out of her hand. Only one woman's feet had worn them, he knew that.
"Left here last summer by a lady," said the girl; "might be the one you are looking for. Never saw any feet so small."
Gregory rose and questioned her.
They might have come in a wagon and spider, she could not tell. But the gentleman was very handsome, tall, lovely figure, blue eyes, wore gloves always when he went out. An English officer, perhaps; no Africander, certainly.
Gregory stopped her.
The lady? Well, she was pretty, rather, the girl said; very cold, dull air, silent. They stayed for, it might be, five days; slept in the wing over against the stoep; quarrelled sometimes, she thought–the lady. She had seen everything when she went in to wait. One day the gentleman touched her hair; she drew back from him as though his fingers poisoned her. Went to the other end of the room if he came to sit near her. Walked out alone. Cold wife for such a handsome husband, the girl thought; she evidently pitied him, he was such a beautiful man. They went away early one morning, how, or in which way, the girl could not tell.
Gregory inquired of the servants, but nothing more was to be learnt; so the next morning he saddled his horse and went on. At the farms he came to the good old ooms and tantes asked him to have coffee, and the little shoeless children peeped out at the stranger from behind ovens and gables; but no one had seen what he asked for. This way and that he rode to pick up the thread he had dropped, but the spider and the wagon, the little lady and the handsome gentleman, no one had seen. In the towns he fared yet worse.
Once indeed hope came to him. On the stoep of an hotel at which he stayed the night in a certain little village, there walked a gentleman, grave and kindly-looking. It was not hard to open conversation with him about the weather, and then–Had he ever seen such and such people, a gentleman and a lady, a spider and wagon, arrive at that place? The kindly gentleman shook his head. What was the lady like, he inquired.
Gregory painted. Hair like silken floss, small mouth, underlip very full and pink, upper lip pink but very thin and curled; there were four white spots on the nail of her right hand forefinger, and her eyebrows were very delicately curved.
"Yes; and a rose-bud tinge in the cheeks; hands like lilies, and perfectly seraphic smile."
"That is she! that is she!" cried Gregory.
Who else could it be? He asked where she had gone to. The gentleman most thoughtfully stroked his beard.
He would try to remember. Were not her ears–. Here such a violent fit of coughing seized him that he ran away into the house. An ill-fed clerk and a dirty barman standing in the doorway laughed aloud. Gregory wondered if they could be laughing at the gentleman's cough, and then he heard some one laughing in the room into which the gentleman had gone. He must follow him and try to learn more; but he soon found that there was nothing more to be learnt there. Poor Gregory!
Backward and forward, backward and forward, from the dirty little hotel where he had dropped the thread, to this farm and to that, rode Gregory, till his heart was sick and tired. That from that spot the wagon might have gone its own way and the spider another was an idea that did not occur to him. At last he saw it was no use lingering in that neighbourhood, and pressed on.
One day coming to a little town, his horses knocked up, and he resolved to rest them there. The little hotel of the town was a bright and sunny place, like the jovial face of the clean little woman who kept it, and who trotted about talking always–talking to the customers in the taproom, and to the maids in the kitchen, and to the passers-by when she could hail them from the windows; talking, as good-natured women with large mouths and small noses always do, in season and out.
There was a little front parlour in the hotel, kept for strangers who wanted to be alone. Gregory sat there to eat his breakfast, and the landlady dusted the room and talked of the great finds at the Diamond Fields, and the badness of maid-servants, and the shameful conduct of the Dutch parson in that town to the English inhabitants. Gregory ate his breakfast and listened to nothing. He had asked his one question, and had had his answer; now she might talk on.
Presently a door in the corner opened and a woman came out–a Mozambiquer, with a red handkerchief twisted round her head. She carried in her hand a tray, with a slice of toast crumbled fine, and a half-filled cup of coffee, and an egg broken open, but not eaten. Her ebony face grinned complacently as she shut the door softly and said, "Good morning."
The landlady began to talk to her.
"You are not going to leave her really, Ayah, are you?" she said. "The maids say so; but I'm sure you wouldn't do such a thing."
The Mozambiquer grinned.
"Husband says I must go home."
"But she hasn't got any one else, and won't have any one else. Come, now," said the landlady, "I've no time to be sitting always in a sickroom, not if I was paid anything for it."
The Mozambiquer only showed her white teeth good-naturedly for answer, and went out, and the landlady followed her.
Gregory, glad to be alone, watched the sunshine as it came over the fuchsias in the window, and ran up and down on the panelled door in the corner. The Mozambiquer had closed it loosely behind her, and presently something touched it inside. It moved a little, then it was still, then moved again; then through the gap a small nose appeared, and a yellow ear overlapping one eye; then the whole head obtruded, placed itself critically on one side, wrinkled its nose disapprovingly at Gregory, and withdrew. Through the half-open door came a faint scent of vinegar, and the room was dark and still.
Presently the landlady came back.
"Left the door open," she said, bustling to shut it; "but a darky will be a darky, and never carries a head on its shoulders like other folks. Not ill, I hope sir?" she said, looking at Gregory when she had shut the bedroom door.
"No," said Gregory, "no."
The landlady began putting the things together.
"Who," asked Gregory, "is in that room?"
Glad to have a little innocent piece of gossip to relate, and some one willing to hear it, the landlady made the most of a little story as she cleared the table. Six months before a lady had come alone to the hotel in a wagon, with only a coloured leader and driver. Eight days after a little baby had been born.
If Gregory stood up and looked out at the window he would see a bluegum- tree in the graveyard; close by it was a little grave. The baby was buried there. A tiny thing–only lived two hours, and the mother herself almost went with it. After a while she was better; but one day she got up out of bed, dressed herself without saying a word to any one, and went out. It was a drizzly day; a little time after some one saw her sitting on the wet ground under the bluegum-tree, with the rain dripping from her hat and shawl. They went to fetch her, but she would not come until she chose. When she did, she had gone to bed and had not risen again from it; never would, the doctor said.
She was very patient, poor thing. When you went in to ask her how she was she said always "Better," or "Nearly well!" and lay still in the darkened room, and never troubled any one. The Mozambiquer took care of her, and she would not allow any one else to touch her; would not so much as allow any one else to see her foot uncovered. She was strange in many ways, but she paid well, poor thing; and now the Mozambiquer was going, and she would have to take up with some one else.
The landlady prattled on pleasantly, and now carried away the tray with the breakfast things. When she was gone Gregory leaned his head on his hands, but he did not think long.
Before dinner he had ridden out of the town to where on a rise a number of transport-wagons were outspanned. The Dutchman driver of one wondered at the stranger's eagerness to free himself of his horses. Stolen perhaps; but it was worth his while to buy them at so low a price. So the horses changed masters, and Gregory walked off with his saddlebags slung across his arm. Once out of sight of the wagons he struck out of the road and walked across the veld, the dry, flowering grasses waving everywhere about him; half-way across the plain he came to a deep gully which the rain torrents had washed out, but which was now dry. Gregory sprung down into its red bed. It was a safe place, and quiet. When he had looked about him he sat down under the shade of an overhanging bank and fanned himself with his hat, for the afternoon was hot, and he had walked fast. At his feet the dusty ants ran about, and the high red bank before him was covered by a network of roots and fibres washed bare by the rains. Above his head rose the clear blue African sky; at his side were the saddlebags full of women's clothing. Gregory looked up half plaintively into the blue sky.
"Am I, am I Gregory Nazianzen Rose?" he said.
It was also strange, he sitting there in that sloot in that up-country plain!–strange as the fantastic, changing shapes in a summer cloud. At last, tired out, he fell asleep, with his head against the bank. When he woke the shadow had stretched across the sloot, and the sun was on the edge of the plain. Now he must be up and doing. He drew from his breast pocket a little sixpenny looking-glass, and hung it on one of the roots that stuck out from the bank. Then he dressed himself in one of the old-fashioned gowns and a great pinked-out collar. Then he took out a razor. Tuft by tuft the soft brown beard fell down into the sand, and the little ants took it to line their nests with. Then the glass showed a face surrounded by a frilled cap, white as a woman's, with a little mouth, a very short upper lip, and a receding chin.
Presently a rather tall woman's figure was making its way across the veld. As it passed a hollowed-out antheap it knelt down, and stuffed in the saddlebags with the man's clothing, closing up the anthill with bits of ground to look as natural as possible. Like a sinner hiding his deed of sin, the hider started once and looked round, but yet there was no one near save a meerkat, who had lifted herself out of her hole and sat on her hind legs watching. He did not like that even she should see, and when he rose she dived away into her hole. Then he walked on leisurely, that the dusk might have reached the village streets before he walked there. The first house was the smith's, and before the open door two idle urchins lolled. As he hurried up the street in the gathering gloom he heard them laugh long and loudly behind him. He glanced round fearingly, and would almost have fled, but that the strange skirts clung about his legs. And after all it was only a spark that had alighted on the head of one, and not the strange figure they laughed at.
The door of the hotel stood wide open, and the light fell out into the street. He knocked, and the landlady came. She peered out to look for the cart that had brought the traveller; but Gregory's heart was brave now he was so near the quiet room. He told her he had come with the transport wagons that stood outside the town.
He had walked in, and wanted lodgings for the night.
It was a deliberate lie, glibly told; he would have told fifty, though the recording angel had stood in the next room with his pen dipped in the ink. What was it to him? He remembered that she lay there saying always: "I am better."
The landlady put his supper in the little parlour where he had sat in the morning. When it was on the table she sat down in the rocking-chair, as her fashion was to knit and talk, that she might gather news for her customers in the taproom. In the white face under the queer, deep-fringed cap she saw nothing of the morning's traveller. The newcomer was communicative. She was a nurse by profession, she said; had come to the Transvaal, hearing that good nurses were needed there. She had not yet found work. The landlady did not perhaps know whether there would be any for her in that town?
The landlady put down her knitting and smote her fat hands together.
If it wasn't the very finger of God's providence, as though you saw it hanging out of the sky, she said. Here was a lady ill and needing a new nurse that very day, and not able to get one to her mind, and now–well, if it wasn't enough to convert all the Atheists and Freethinkers in the Transvaal, she didn't know!
Then the landlady proceeded to detail facts.
"I'm sure you will suit her," she added; "you're just the kind. She has heaps of money to pay you with; has everything that money can buy. And I got a letter with a check in it for fifty pounds the other day from some one, who says I'm to spend it for her, and not to let her know. She is asleep now, but I'll take you in to look at her."
The landlady opened the door of the next room, and Gregory followed her. A table stood near the bed, and a lamp burning low stood on it; the bed was a great four-poster with white curtains, and the quilt was of rich crimson satin. But Gregory stood just inside the door with his head bent low, and saw no further.
"Come nearer! I'll turn the lamp up a bit, that you can have a look at her. A pretty thing, isn't it?" said the landlady.
Near the foot of the bed was a dent in the crimson quilt, and out of it Doss' small head and bright eyes looked knowingly.
Then Gregory looked up at what lay on the cushion. A little white, white face, transparent as an angel's with a cloth bound round the forehead, and with soft hair tossed about on the pillow.
"We had to cut it off," said the woman, touching it with her forefinger. "Soft as silk, like a wax doll's."
But Gregory's heart was bleeding.
"Never get up again, the doctor says," said the landlady.
Gregory uttered one word. In an instant the beautiful eyes opened widely, looked round the room and into the dark corners.
"Who is here? Whom did I hear speak?"
Gregory had sunk back behind the curtain; the landlady drew it aside, and pulled him forward.
"Only this lady, ma'am–a nurse by profession. She is willing to stay and take care of you, if you can come to terms with her."
Lyndall raised herself on her elbow, and cast one keen scrutinizing glance over him.
"Have I never seen you before?" she asked.
She fell back wearily.
"Perhaps you would like to arrange the terms between yourselves," said the landlady. "Here is a chair. I will be back presently."
Gregory sat down, with bent head and quick breath. She did not speak, and lay with half-closed eyes, seeming to have forgotten him.
"Will you turn the lamp down a little?" she said at last; "I cannot bear the light."
Then his heart grew braver in the shadow, and he spoke. Nursing was to him, he said, his chosen life's work. He wanted no money if– She stopped him.
"I take no service for which I do not pay," she said. "What I gave to my last nurse I will give to you; if you do not like it you may go."
And Gregory muttered humbly, he would take it.
Afterward she tried to turn herself. He lifted her! Ah! a shrunken little body, he could feel its weakness as he touched it. His hands were to him glorified for what they had done.
"Thank you! that is so nice. Other people hurt me when they touch me," she said. "Thank you!" Then after a little while she repeated humbly, "Thank you; they hurt me so."
Gregory sat down trembling. His little ewe-lamb, could they hurt her?
The doctor said of Gregory four days after, "She is the most experienced nurse I ever came in contact with."
Gregory, standing in the passage, heard it and laughed in his heart. What need had he of experience? Experience teaches us in a millennium what passion teaches us in an hour. A Kaffer studies all his life the discerning of distant sounds; but he will never hear my step, when my love hears it, coming to her window in the dark over the short grass.
At first Gregory's heart was sore when day by day the body grew lighter, and the mouth he fed took less; but afterward he grew accustomed to it, and was happy. For passion has one cry, one only–"Oh, to touch thee, Beloved!"
In that quiet room Lyndall lay on the bed with the dog at her feet, and Gregory sat in his dark corner watching.
She seldom slept, and through those long, long days she would lie watching the round streak of sunlight that came through the knot in the shutter, or the massive lion's paw on which the wardrobe rested. What thoughts were in those eyes? Gregory wondered; he dared not ask.
Sometimes Doss where he lay on her feet would dream that they two were in the cart, tearing over the veld, with the black horses snorting, and the wind in their faces; and he would start up in his sleep and bark aloud. Then awaking, he would lick his mistress' hand almost remorsefully, and slink quietly down into his place.
Gregory thought she had no pain, she never groaned; only sometimes, when the light was near her, he thought he could see contractions about her lips and eyebrows.
He slept on the sofa outside her door.
One night he thought he heard a sound, and, opening it softly, he looked in. She was crying out aloud, as if she and her pain were alone in the world. The light fell on the red quilt, and the little hands that were clasped over the head. The wide-open eyes were looking up, and the heavy drops fell slowly from them.
"I cannot bear any more, not any more," she said in a deep voice. "Oh, God, God! have I not borne in silence? Have I not endured these long, long months? But now, now, oh, God, I cannot!"
Gregory knelt in the doorway listening.
"I do not ask for wisdom, not human love, not work, not knowledge, not for all things I have longed for," she cried; "only a little freedom from pain! Only one little hour without pain! Then I will suffer again."
She sat up, and bit the little hand Gregory loved.
He crept away to the front door, and stood looking out at the quiet starlight. When he came back she was lying in her usual posture, the quiet eyes looking at the lion's claw. He came close to the bed.
"You have much pain tonight?" he asked her.
"No, not much."
"Can I do anything for you?"
She still drew her lips together, and motioned with her fingers toward the dog who lay sleeping at her feet. Gregory lifted him and laid him at her side. She made Gregory turn open the bosom of her nightdress, that the dog might put his black muzzle between her breasts. She crossed her arms over him. Gregory left them lying there together.
Next day, when they asked her how she was, she answered "Better."
"Some one ought to tell her," said the landlady; "we can't let her soul go out into eternity not knowing, especially when I don't think it was all right about the child. You ought to go and tell her, doctor."
So, the little doctor, edged on and on, went in at last. When he came out of the room he shook his fist in the landlady's face.
"The next time you have any devil's work to do, do it yourself," he said, and he shook his fist in her face again, and went away swearing.
When Gregory went into the bedroom he only found her moved, her body curled up, and drawn close to the wall. He dared not disturb her. At last, after a long time, she turned.
"Bring me food," she said, "I want to eat. Two eggs, and toast, and meat– two large slices of toast, please."
Wondering, Gregory brought a tray with all that she had asked for.
"Sit me up, and put it close to me," she said; "I am going to eat it all." She tried to draw the things near her with her fingers, and re-arranged the plates. She cut the toast into long strips, broke open both eggs, put a tiny morsel of bread into her own mouth, and fed the dog with pieces of meat put into his jaws with her fingers.
"Is it twelve o'clock yet?" she said; "I think I do not generally eat so early. Put it away, please, carefully–no, do not take it away–only on the table. When the clock strikes twelve I will eat it."
She lay down trembling. After a little while she said:
"Give me my clothes."
He looked at her.
"Yes; I am going to dress tomorrow. I should get up now, but it is rather late. Put them on that chair. My collars are in the little box, my boots behind the door."
Her eyes followed him intently as he collected the articles one by one, and placed them on the chair as she directed.
"Put it nearer," she said, "I cannot see it;" and she lay watching the clothes, with her hand under her cheek.
"Now open the shutter wide," she said; "I am going to read."
The old, old tone was again in the sweet voice. He obeyed her; and opened the shutter, and raised her up among the pillows.
"Now bring my books to me," she said, motioning eagerly with her fingers; "the large book, and the reviews and the plays–I want them all."
He piled them round her on the bed; she drew them greedily closer, her eyes very bright, but her face as white as a mountain lily.
"Now the big one off the drawers. No, you need not help me to hold my book," she said; "I can hold it for myself."
Gregory went back to his corner, and for a little time the restless turning over of leaves was to be heard.
"Will you open the window," she said, almost querulously, "and throw this book out? It is so utterly foolish. I thought it was a valuable book; but the words are merely strung together, they make no sense. Yes–so!" she said with approval, seeing him fling it out into the street. "I must have been very foolish when I thought that book good."
Then she turned to read, and leaned her little elbows resolutely on the great volume, and knit her brows. This was Shakespeare–it must mean something.
"I wish you would take a handkerchief and tie it tight round my head, it aches so."
He had not been long in his seat when he saw drops fall from beneath the hands that shaded the eyes, on to the page.
"I am not accustomed to so much light, it makes my head swim a little," she said. "Go out and close the shutter."
When he came back, she lay shrivelled up among the pillows.
He heard no sound of weeping, but the shoulders shook. He darkened the room completely.
When Gregory went to his sofa that night, she told him to wake her early; she would be dressed before breakfast. Nevertheless, when morning came, she said it was a little cold, and lay all day watching her clothes upon the chair. Still she sent for her oxen in the country; they would start on Monday and go down to the Colony.
In the afternoon she told him to open the window wide, and draw the bed near it.
It was a leaden afternoon, the dull rain-clouds rested close to the roofs of the houses, and the little street was silent and deserted. Now and then a gust of wind eddying round caught up the dried leaves, whirled them hither and thither under the trees, and dropped them again into the gutter; then all was quiet. She lay looking out.
Presently the bell of the church began to toll, and up the village street came a long procession. They were carrying an old man to his last resting- place. She followed them with her eyes till they turned in among the trees at the gate.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"An old man," he answered, "a very old man; they say he was ninety-four; but his name I do not know."
She mused a while, looking out with fixed eyes.
"That is why the bell rang so cheerfully," she said. "When the old die it is well; they have had their time. It is when the young die that the bells weep drops of blood."
"But the old love life?" he said; for it was sweet to hear her speak.
She raised herself on her elbow.
"They love life, they do not want to die," she answered, "but what of that? They have had their time. They knew that a man's life is three-score years and ten; they should have made their plans accordingly!
"But the young," she said, "the young, cut down, cruelly, when they have not seen, when they have not known–when they have not found–it is for them that the bells weep blood. I heard in the ringing it was an old man. When the old die– Listen to the bell! it is laughing–'It is right, it is right; he has had his time.' They cannot ring so for the young."
She fell back exhausted; the hot light died from her eyes, and she lay looking out into the street. By and by stragglers from the funeral began to come back and disappear here and there among the houses; then all was quiet, and the night began to settle down upon the village street. Afterward, when the room was almost dark, so that they could not see each other's faces, she said, "It will rain tonight;" and moved restlessly on the pillows. "How terrible when the rain falls down on you."
He wondered what she meant, and they sat on in the still darkening room. She moved again.
"Will you presently take my cloak–and new grey cloak from behind the door- -and go out with it. You will find a little grave at the foot of the tall gum-tree; the water drips off the long, pointed leaves; you must cover it up with that."
She moved restlessly as though in pain.
Gregory assented, and there was silence again. It was the first time she had ever spoken of her child.
"It was so small," she said; "it lived such a little while–only three hours. They laid it close by me, but I never saw it; I could feel it by me." She waited; "its feet were so cold; I took them in my hand to make them warm, and my hand closed right over them they were so little." There was an uneven trembling in the voice. "It crept close to me; it wanted to drink, it wanted to be warm." She hardened herself–"I did not love it; its father was not my prince; I did not care for it; but it was so little." She moved her hand. "They might have kissed it, one of them, before they put it in. It never did any one any harm in all its little life. They might have kissed it, one of them."
Gregory felt that some one was sobbing in the room.
Late on in the evening, when the shutter was closed and the lamp lighted, and the rain-drops beat on the roof, he took the cloak from behind the door and went away with it. On his way back he called at the village post- office and brought back a letter. In the hall he stood reading the address. How could he fail to know whose hand had written it? Had he not long ago studied those characters on the torn fragments of paper in the old parlour? A burning pain was at Gregory's heart. If now, now at the last, one should come, should step in between! He carried the letter into the bedroom and gave it to her. "Bring me the lamp nearer," she said. When she had read it she asked for her desk.
Then Gregory sat down in the lamp-light on the other side of the curtain, and heard the pencil move on the paper. When he looked round the curtain she was lying on the pillow musing. The open letter lay at her side; she glanced at it with soft eyes. The man with the languid eyelids must have been strangely moved before his hand set down those words:
"Let me come back to you! My darling, let me put my hand round you, and guard you from all the world. As my wife they shall never touch you. I have learnt to love you more wisely, more tenderly, than of old; you shall have perfect freedom. Lyndall, grand little woman, for your own sake be my wife!
"Why did you send that money back to me? You are cruel to me; it is not rightly done."
She rolled the little red pencil softly between her fingers, and her face grew very soft. Yet:
"It cannot be," she wrote; "I thank you much for the love you have shown me; but I cannot listen. You will call me mad, foolish–the world would do so; but I know what I need and the kind of path I must walk in. I cannot marry you. I will always love you for the sake of what lay by me those three hours; but there it ends. I must know and see, I cannot be bound to one whom I love as I love you. I am not afraid of the world–I will fight the world. One day–perhaps it may be far off–I shall find what I have wanted all my life; something nobler, stronger than I, before which I can kneel down. You lose nothing by not having me now; I am a weak, selfish, erring woman. One day I shall find something to worship, and then I shall be–"
"Nurse," she said; "take my desk away; I am suddenly so sleepy; I will write more tomorrow." She turned her face to the pillow; it was the sudden drowsiness of great weakness. She had dropped asleep in a moment, and Gregory moved the desk softly, and then sat in the chair watching. Hour after hour passed, but he had no wish for rest, and sat on, hearing the rain cease, and the still night settle down everywhere. At a quarter-past twelve he rose, and took a last look at the bed where she lay sleeping so peacefully; then he turned to go to his couch. Before he had reached the door she had started up and was calling him back.
"You are sure you have put it up?" she said, with a look of blank terror at the window. "It will not fall open in the night, the shutter–you are sure?"
He comforted her. Yes, it was tightly fastened.
"Even if it is shut," she said, in a whisper, "you cannot keep it out! You feel it coming in at four o'clock, creeping, creeping, up, up; deadly cold!" She shuddered.
He thought she was wandering, and laid her little trembling body down among the blankets.
"I dreamed just now that it was not put up," she said, looking into his eyes; "and it crept right in and I was alone with it."
"What do you fear?" he asked, tenderly.
"The Grey Dawn," she said, glancing round at the window. "I was never afraid of anything, never, when I was a little child, but I have always been afraid of that. You will not let it come in to me?"
"No, no; I will stay with you," he continued.
But she was growing calmer. "No, you must go to bed. I only awoke with a start; you must be tired. I am childish, that is all;" but she shivered again.
He sat down beside her, after some time she said: "Will you not rub my feet?"
He knelt down at the foot of the bed and took the tiny foot in his hand; it was swollen and unsightly now, but as he touched it he bent down and covered it with kisses.
"It makes it better when you kiss it; thank you. What makes you all love me so?" Then dreamily she muttered to herself: "Not utterly bad, not quite bad–what makes them all love me so?"
Kneeling there, rubbing softly, with his cheek pressed against the little foot, Gregory dropped to sleep at last. How long he knelt there he could not tell; but when he started up awake she was not looking at him. The eyes were fixed on the far corner, gazing wide and intent, with an unearthly light.
He looked round fearfully. What did she see there? God's angels come to call her? Something fearful? He saw only the purple curtain with the shadows that fell from it. Softly he whispered, asking what she saw there.
And she said, in a voice strangely unlike her own: "I see the vision of a poor, weak soul striving after good. It was not cut short, and in the end it learnt, through tears and much pain, that holiness is an infinite compassion for others; that greatness is to take the common things of life and walk truly among them; that"–She moved her white hand and laid it on her forehead–"happiness is a great love and much serving. It was not cut short; and it loved what it had learnt–it loved–and–"
Was that all she saw in the corner?
Gregory told the landlady the next morning that she had been wandering all night. Yet, when he came in to give her her breakfast, she was sitting up against the pillows, looking as he had not seen her look before.
"Put it close to me," she said, "and when I have had breakfast I am going to dress."
She finished all he had brought her eagerly.
"I am sitting up quite by myself," she said. "Give me his meat;" and she fed the dog herself, cutting his food small for him. She moved to the side of the bed.
"Now bring the chair near and dress me. It is being in this room so long, and looking at that miserable little bit of sunshine that comes in through the shutter, that is making me so ill. Always that lion's paw!" she said, with a look of disgust at it. "Come and dress me." Gregory knelt on the floor before her, and tried to draw on one stocking, but the little swollen foot refused to be covered.
"It is very funny that I should have grown so fat since I have been so ill," she said, peering down curiously. "Perhaps it is want of exercise." She looked troubled and said again, "Perhaps it is want of exercise." She wanted Gregory to say so too. But he only found a larger pair; and then tried to force the shoes, oh, so tenderly, on to her little feet.
"There," she said, looking down at them when they were on, with the delight of a small child over its first shoes, "I could walk far now. How nice it looks!"
"No," she said, seeing the soft gown he had prepared for her, "I will not put that on. Get one of my white dresses–the one with the pink bows. I do not even want to think I have been ill. It is thinking and thinking of things that makes them real," she said. "When you draw your mind together, and resolve that a thing shall not be, it gives way before you; it is not. Everything is possible if one is resolved," she said. She drew in her little lips together, and Gregory obeyed her; she was so small and slight now it was like dressing a small doll. He would have lifted her down from the bed when he had finished, but she pushed him from her, laughing very softly. It was the first time she had laughed in those long, dreary months.
"No, no; I can get down myself," she said, slipping cautiously on to the floor. "You see!" She cast a defiant glance of triumph when she stood there. "Hold the curtain up high, I want to look at myself."
He raised it, and stood holding it. She looked into the glass on the opposite wall.
Such a queenly little figure in its pink and white. Such a transparent little face, refined by suffering into an almost angel-like beauty. The face looked at her; she looked back, laughing softly. Doss, quivering with excitement, ran round her, barking. She took one step toward the door, balancing herself with outstretched hands.
"I am nearly there," she said.
Then she groped blindly.
"Oh, I cannot see! I cannot see! Where am I?" she cried.
When Gregory reached her she had fallen with her face against the sharp foot of the wardrobe and cut her forehead. Very tenderly he raised the little crushed heap of muslin and ribbons, and laid it on the bed. Doss climbed up, and sat looking down at it. Very softly Gregory's hands disrobed her.
"You will be stronger tomorrow, and then we shall try again," he said, but she neither looked at him nor stirred.
When he had undressed her, and laid her in bed, Doss stretched himself across her feet and lay whining softly.
So she lay all that morning, and all that afternoon.
Again and again Gregory crept close to the bedside and looked at her; but she did not speak to him. Was it stupor or was it sleep that shone under those half-closed eyelids. Gregory could not tell.
At last in the evening he bent over her.
"The oxen have come," he said; "we can start tomorrow if you like. Shall I get the wagon ready tonight?"
Twice he repeated his question. Then she looked up at him, and Gregory saw that all hope had died out of the beautiful eyes. It was not stupor that shone there, it was despair.
"Yes, let us go," she said.
"It makes no difference," said the doctor; "staying or going; it is close now."
So the next day Gregory carried her out in his arms to the wagon which stood inspanned before the door. As he laid her down on the kartel she looked far out across the plain. For the first time she spoke that day.
"That blue mountain, far away; let us stop when we get to it, not before." She closed her eyes again. He drew the sails down before and behind, and the wagon rolled away slowly. The landlady and the niggers stood to watch it from the stoep.
Very silently the great wagon rolled along the grass-covered plain. The driver on the front box did not clap his whip or call to his oxen, and Gregory sat beside him with folded arms. Behind them, in the closed wagon, she lay with the dog at her feet, very quiet, with folded hands. He, Gregory, dared not be in there. Like Hagar, when she laid her treasure down in the wilderness, he sat afar off:–"For Hagar said, Let me not see the death of the child."
Evening came, and yet the blue mountain was not reached, and all the next day they rode on slowly, but still it was far off. Only at evening they reached it; not blue now, but low and brown, covered with long waving grasses and rough stones. They drew the wagon up close to its foot for the night. It was a sheltered, warm spot.
When the dark night had come, when the tired oxen were tied to the wheels, and the driver and leader had rolled themselves in their blankets before the fire, and gone to sleep, then Gregory fastened down the sails of the wagon securely. He fixed a long candle near the head of the bed, and lay down himself on the floor of the wagon near the back. He leaned his head against the kartel, and listened to the chewing of the tired oxen, and to the crackling of the fire, till, overpowered by weariness, he fell into a heavy sleep. Then all was very still in the wagon. The dog slept on his mistress' feet, and only two mosquitoes, creeping in through a gap in the front sail, buzzed drearily round.
The night was grown very old when from a long, peaceful sleep Lyndall awoke. The candle burnt at her head, the dog lay on her feet; but he shivered; it seemed as though a coldness struck up to him from his resting- place. She lay with folded hands, looking upward; and she heard the oxen chewing, and she saw the two mosquitoes buzzing drearily round and round, and her thoughts–her thoughts ran far back into the past.
Through these months of anguish a mist had rested on her mind; it was rolled together now, and the old clear intellect awoke from its long torpor. It looked back into the past, it saw the present; there was no future now. The old strong soul gathered itself together for the last time; it knew where it stood.
Slowly raising herself on her elbow, she took from the sail a glass that hung pinned there. Her fingers were stiff and cold. She put the pillow on her breast, and stood the glass against it. Then the white face on the pillow looked into the white face in the glass. They had looked at each other often so before. It had been a child's face once, looking out above its blue pinafore; it had been a woman's face, with a dim shadow in the eyes, and a something which had said, "We are not afraid, you and I; we are together; we will fight, you and I." Now tonight it had come to this.
The dying eyes on the pillow looked into the dying eyes in the glass; they knew that their hour had come. She raised one hand and pressed the stiff fingers against the glass. They were growing very stiff. She tried to speak to it, but she would never speak again. Only the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth.
Then slowly, without a sound, the beautiful eyes closed. The dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvelous beauty and tranquillity. The Grey Dawn crept in over it and saw it lying there.
Had she found what she sought for–something to worship? Had she ceased from being? Who shall tell us? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter.