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The Song of Death by Hermann Sudermann

 

With faint and quivering beats the clock of the hotel announced the hour to the promenaders on the beach.

“It is time to eat, Nathaniel,” said a slender, yet well-filled-out young woman, who held a book between her fingers, to a formless bundle, huddled in many shawls, by her side. Painfully the bundle unfolded itself, stretched and grew gradually into the form of a man—hollow chested, thin legged, narrow shouldered, attired in flopping garments, such as one sees by the thousands on the coasts of the Riviera in winter.

The midday glow of the sun burned down upon the yellowish gray wall of cliff into which the promenade of Nervi is hewn, and which slopes down to the sea in a zigzag of towering bowlders.

Upon the blue mirror of the sea sparkled a silvery meshwork of sunbeams. So vast a fullness of light flooded the landscape that even the black cypress trees which stood, straight and tall, beyond the garden walls, seemed to glitter with a radiance of their own. The tide was silent. Only the waters of the imprisoned springs that poured, covered with iridescent bubbles, into the hollows between the rocks, gurgled and sighed wearily.

The breakfast bell brought a new pulsation of life to the huddled figures on the beach.

“He who eats is cured,” is the motto of the weary creatures whose arms are often too weak to carry their forks to their mouths. But he who comes to this land of eternal summer merely to ease and rest his soul, trembles with hunger in the devouring sweetness of the air and can scarcely await the hour of food.

With a gentle compulsion the young woman pushed the thin, wrinkled hand of the invalid under her arm and led him carefully through a cool and narrow road, which runs up to the town between high garden walls and through which a treacherous draught blows even on the sunniest days.

“Are you sure your mouth is covered?” she asked, adapting her springy gait with difficulty to the dragging steps of her companion.

An inarticulate murmur behind the heavy shawl was his only answer.

She stretched her throat a little—a round, white, firm throat, with two little folds that lay rosy in the rounded flesh. Closing her eyes, she inhaled passionately the aromatic perfumes of the neighbouring gardens. It was a strange mixture of odours, like that which is wafted from the herb chamber of an apothecary. A wandering sunbeam glided over the firm, short curve of her cheek, which was of almost milky whiteness, save for the faint redness of those veins which sleepless nights bring out upon the pallid faces of full-blooded blondes.

A laughing group of people went swiftly by—white-breeched Englishmen and their ladies. The feather boas, whose ends fluttered in the wind, curled tenderly about slender throats, and on the reddish heads bobbed little round hats, smooth and shining as the tall head-gear of a German postillion.

The young woman cast a wistful glance after those happy folk, and pressed more firmly the arm of her suffering husband.

Other groups followed. It was not difficult to overtake this pair.

“We'll be the last, Mary,” Nathaniel murmured, with the invalid's ready reproach.

But the young woman did not hear. She listened to a soft chatting, which, carried along between the sounding-boards of these high walls, was clearly audible. The conversation was conducted in French, and she had to summon her whole stock of knowledge in order not to lose the full sense of what was said. “I hope, Madame, that your uncle is not seriously ill?”

“Not at all, sir. But he likes his comfort. And since walking bores him, he prefers to pass his days in an armchair. And it's my function to entertain him.” An arch, pouting voila closed the explanation.

Next came a little pause. Then the male voice asked:

“And are you never free, Madame?”

“Almost never.”

“And may I never again hope for the happiness of meeting you on the beach?”

“But surely you may!”

Mille remerciments; Madame.”

A strangely soft restrained tone echoed in this simple word of thanks. Secret desires murmured in it and unexpressed confessions.

Mary, although she did not look as though she were experienced in flirtation or advances, made a brief, timid gesture. Then, as though discovered and ashamed, she remained very still.

Those two then.... That's who it was....

And they had really made each others' acquaintance!

She was a delicately made and elegant Frenchwoman. Her bodice was cut in a strangely slender way, which made her seem to glide along like a bird. Or was it her walk that caused the phenomenon? Or the exquisite arching of her shoulders? Who could tell? ... She did not take her meals at the common table, but in a corner of the dining-hall in company of an old gouty gentleman with white stubbles on his chin and red-lidded eyes. When she entered the hall she let a smiling glance glide along the table, but without looking at or saluting any one. She scarcely touched the dishes—at least from the point of view of Mary's sturdy appetite—but even before the soup was served she nibbled at the dates meant for dessert, and then the bracelets upon her incredibly delicate wrists made a strange, fairy music. She wore a wedding ring. But it had always been open to doubt whether the old gentleman was her husband. For her demeanour toward him was that of a spoiled but sedulously watched child.

And he—he sat opposite Mary at table. He was a very dark young man, with black, melancholy eyes—Italian eyes, one called them in her Pomeranian home land. He had remarkably white, narrow hands, and a small, curly beard, which was clipped so close along the cheeks that the skin itself seemed to have a bluish shimmer. He had never spoken to Mary, presumably because he knew no German, but now and then he would let his eyes rest upon her with a certain smiling emotion which seemed to her to be very blameworthy and which filled her with confusion. Thus, however, it had come to pass that, whenever she got ready to go to table her thoughts were busy with him, and it was not rare for her to ask herself at the opening of the door to the dining-hall: “I wonder whether he's here or will come later?”

For several days there had been noticeable in this young man an inclination to gaze over his left shoulder to the side table at which the young Frenchwoman sat. And several times this glance had met an answering one, however fleeting. And more than that! She could be seen observing him with smiling consideration as, between the fish and the roast, she pushed one grape after another between her lips. He was, of course, not cognisant of all that, but Mary knew of it and was surprised and slightly shocked.

And they had really made each others' acquaintance!

And now they were both silent, thinking, obviously, that they had but just come within hearing distance.

Then they hurried past the slowly creeping couple. The lady looked downward, kicking pebbles; the gentleman bowed. It was done seriously, discreetly, as befits a mere neighbour at table. Mary blushed. That happened often, far too often. And she was ashamed. Thus it happened that she often blushed from fear of blushing.

The gentleman saw it and did not smile. She thanked him for it in her heart, and blushed all the redder, for he might have smiled.

“We'll have to eat the omelettes cold again,” the invalid mumbled into his shawls.

This time she understood him.

“Then we'll order fresh ones.”

“Oh,” he said reproachfully, “you haven't the courage. You're always afraid of the waiters.”

She looked up at him with a melancholy smile.

It was true. She was afraid of the waiters. That could not be denied. Her necessary dealings with these dark and shiny-haired gentlemen in evening clothes were a constant source of fear and annoyance. They scarcely gave themselves the trouble to understand her bad French and her worse Italian. And when they dared to smile...!

But his concern had been needless. The breakfast did not consist of omelettes, but of macaroni boiled in water and mixed with long strings of cheese. He was forbidden to eat this dish.

Mary mixed his daily drink, milk with brandy, and was happy to see the eagerness with which he absorbed the life-giving fumes. The dark gentleman was already in his seat opposite her, and every now and then the glance of his velvety eyes glided over her. She was more keenly conscious of this glance than ever, and dared less than ever to meet it. A strange feeling, half delight and half resentment, overcame her. And yet she had no cause to complain that his attention passed the boundary of rigid seemliness.

She stroked her heavy tresses of reddish blonde hair, which curved madonna-like over her temples. They had not been crimped or curled, but were simple and smooth, as befits the wife of a North German clergyman. She would have liked to moisten with her lips the fingers with which she stroked them. This was the only art of the toilet which she knew. But that would have been improper at table.

He wore a yellow silk shirt with a pattern of riding crops. A bunch of violets stuck in his button-hole. Its fragrance floated across the table.

Now the young Frenchwoman entered the hall too. Very carefully she pressed her old uncle's arm, and talked to him in a stream of charming chatter.

The dark gentleman quivered. He compressed his lips but did not turn around. Neither did the lady take any notice of him. She rolled bread pellets with her nervous fingers, played with her bracelets and let the dishes go by untouched.

The long coat of cream silk, which she had put on, increased the tall flexibility of her form. A being woven of sunlight and morning dew, unapproachable in her serene distinction—thus she appeared to Mary, whose hands had been reddened by early toil, and whose breadth of shoulder was only surpassed by her simplicity of heart.

When the roast came Nathaniel revived slightly. He suffered her to fasten the shawl about his shoulders, and rewarded her with a contented smile. It was her sister Anna's opinion that at such moments he resembled the Saviour. The eyes in their blue hollows gleamed with a ghostly light, a faint rosiness shone upon his cheek-bones, and even the blonde beard on the sunken cheeks took on a certain glow.

Grateful for the smile, she pressed his arm. She was satisfied with so little.

Breakfast was over. The gentleman opposite made his silent bow and arose.

“Will he salute her?” Mary asked herself with some inner timidity.

No. He withdrew without glancing at the corner table.

“Perhaps they have fallen out again,” Mary; said to herself. The lady looked after him. A gentle smile played about the corners of her mouth—a superior, almost an ironical smile. Then, her eyes still turned to the door, she leaned across toward the old gentleman in eager questioning.

“She doesn't care for him,” Mary reasoned, with a slight feeling of satisfaction. It was as though some one had returned to her what she had deemed lost.

He had been gone long, but his violets had left their fragrance.

Mary went up to her room to get a warmer shawl for Nathaniel. As she came out again, she saw in the dim hall the radiant figure of the French lady come toward her and open the door to the left of her own room.

“So we are neighbours,” Mary thought, and felt flattered by the proximity. She would have liked to salute her, but she did not dare.

Then she accompanied Nathaniel down to the promenade on the beach. The hours dragged by.

He did not like to have his brooding meditation interrupted by questions or anecdotes. These hours were dedicated to getting well. Every breath here cost money and must be utilised to the utmost. Here breathing was religion, and falling ill a sin.

Mary looked dreamily out upon the sea, to which the afternoon sun now lent a deeper blue. Light wreaths of foam eddied about the stones. In wide semicircles the great and shadowy arms of the mountains embraced the sea. From the far horizon, in regions of the upper air, came from time to time an argent gleam. For there the sun was reflected by unseen fields of snow.

There lay the Alps, and beyond them, deep buried in fog and winter, lay their home land.

Thither Mary's thoughts wandered. They wandered to a sharp-gabled little house, groaning under great weights of snow, by the strand of a frozen stream. The house was so deeply hidden in bushes that the depending boughs froze fast in the icy river and were not liberated till the tardy coming of spring.

And a hundred paces from it stood the white church and the comfortable parsonage. But what did she care for the parsonage, even though she had grown to womanhood in it and was now its mistress?

That little cottage—the widow's house, as the country folk called it—that little cottage held everything that was dear to her at home. There sat by the green tile oven—and oh, how she missed it here, despite the palms and the goodly sun—her aged mother, the former pastor's widow, and her three older sisters, dear and blonde and thin and almost faded. There they sat, worlds away, needy and laborious, and living but in each others' love. Four years had passed since the father had been carried to the God's acre and they had had to leave the parsonage.

That had marked the end of their happiness and their youth. They could not move to the city, for they had no private means, and the gifts of the poor congregation, a dwelling, wood and other donations, could not be exchanged for money. And so they had to stay there quietly and see their lives wither.

The candidate of theology, Nathaniel Pogge, equipped with mighty recommendations, came to deliver his trial sermon.

As he ascended the pulpit, long and frail, flat-chested and narrow shouldered, she saw him for the first time. His emaciated, freckled hand which held the hymn book, trembled with a kind of fever. But his blue eyes shone with the fires of God. To be sure, his voice sounded hollow and hoarse, and often he had to struggle for breath in the middle of a sentence. But what he said was wise and austere, and found favour in the eyes of his congregation.

His mother moved with him into the parsonage. She was a small, fussy lady, energetic and very business-like, who complained of what she called previous mismanagement and seemed to avoid friendly relations.

But her son found his way to the widow's house for all that. He found it oftener and oftener, and the only matter of uncertainty was as to which of the four sisters had impressed him.

She would never have dreamed that his eye had fallen upon her, the youngest. But a refusal was not to be thought of. It was rather her duty to kiss his hands in gratitude for taking her off her mother's shoulders and liberating her from a hopeless situation. Certainly she would not have grudged her happiness to one of her sisters; if it could be called happiness to be subject to a suspicious mother-in-law and the nurse of a valetudinarian. But she tried to think it happiness. And, after all, there was the widow's house, to which one could slip over to laugh or to weep one's fill, as the mood of the hour dictated. Either would have been frowned upon at home.

And of course she loved him.

Assuredly. How should she not have loved him? Had she not sworn to do so at the altar? And then his condition grew worse from day to day and needed her love all the more.

It happened ever oftener that she had to get up at night to heat his moss tea; and ever more breathlessly he cowered in the sacristy after his weekly sermon. And that lasted until the hemorrhage came, which made the trip south imperative.

Ah, and with what grave anxieties had this trip been undertaken! A substitute had to be procured. Their clothes and fares swallowed the salary of many months. They had to pay fourteen francs board a day, not to speak of the extra expenses for brandy, milk, fires and drugs. Nor was this counting the physician who came daily. It was a desperate situation.

But he recovered. At least it was unthinkable that he shouldn't. What object else would these sacrifices have had?

He recovered. The sun and sea and air cured him; or, at least, her love cured him. And this love, which Heaven had sent her as her highest duty, surrounded him like a soft, warm garment, exquisitely flexible to the movement of every limb, not hindering, but yielding to the slightest impulse of movement; forming a protection against the rough winds of the world, surer than a wall of stone or a cloak of fire.

The sun sank down toward the sea. His light assumed a yellow, metallic hue, hard and wounding, before it changed and softened into violet and purple shades. The group of pines on the beach seemed drenched in a sulphurous light and the clarity of their outlines hurt the eye. Like
 a heavy and compact mass, ready to hurtle down, the foliage of the gardens bent over the crumbling walls. From the mountains came a gusty wind that announced the approaching fall of night.

The sick man shivered. Mary was about to suggest their going home, when she perceived the form of a man that had intruded between her and the sinking sun and that was surrounded by a yellow radiance. She recognised the dark gentleman.

A feeling of restlessness overcame her, but she could not turn her eyes from him. Always, when he was near, a strange presentiment came to her—a dreamy knowledge of an unknown land. This impression varied in clearness. To-night she was fully conscious of it.

What she felt was difficult to put into words. She seemed almost to be afraid of him. And yet that was impossible, for what was he to her? She wasn't even interested in him. Surely not. His eyes, his violet fragrance, the flexible elegance of his movements—these things merely aroused in her a faint curiosity. Strictly speaking, he wasn't even a sympathetic personality, and had her sister Lizzie, who had a gift for satire, been here, they would probably have made fun of him. The anxious unquiet which he inspired must have some other source. Here in the south everything was so different—richer, more colourful, more vivid than at home. The sun, the sea, houses, flowers, faces—upon them all lay more impassioned hues. Behind all that there must be a secret hitherto unrevealed to her.

She felt this secret everywhere. It lay in the heavy fragrance of the trees, in the soft swinging of the palm leaves, in the multitudinous burgeoning and bloom about her. It lay in the long-drawn music of the men's voices, in the caressing laughter of the women. It lay in the flaming blushes that, even at table, mantled her face; in the delicious languor that pervaded her limbs and seemed to creep into the innermost marrow of her bones.

But this secret which she felt, scented and absorbed with every organ of her being, but which was nowhere to be grasped, looked upon or recognised—this secret was in some subtle way connected with the man who stood there, irradiated, upon the edge of the cliff, and gazed upon the ancient tower which stood, unreal as a piece of stage scenery, upon the path.

Now he observed her.

For a moment it seemed as though he were about to approach to address her. In his character of a neighbour at table he might well have ventured to do so. But the hasty gesture with which she turned to her sick husband forbade it.

“That would be the last inconvenience,” Mary thought, “to make acquaintances.”

But as she was going home with her husband, she surprised herself in speculation as to how she might have answered his words.

“My French will go far enough,” she thought. “At need I might have risked it.”

The following day brought a sudden lapse in her husband's recovery.

“That happens often,” said the physician, a bony consumptive with the manners of a man of the world and an equipment in that inexpensive courtesy which doctors are wont to assume in hopeless and poorly paying cases.

To listen to him one would think that pulmonary consumption ended in invariable improvement.

“And if something happens during the night?” Mary asked anxiously.

“Then just wait quietly until morning,” the doctor said with the firm decision of a man who doesn't like to have his sleep disturbed.

Nathaniel had to stay in bed and Mary was forced to request the waiters to bring meals up to their room.

Thus passed several days, during which she scarcely left the sick-bed of her husband. And when she wasn't writing home, or reading to him from the hymn book, or cooking some easing draught upon the spirit lamp, she gazed dreamily out of the window.

She had not seen her beautiful neighbour again. With all the more attention she sought to catch any sound, any word that might give her a glimpse into the radiant Paradise of that other life.

A soft singing ushered in the day. Then followed a laughing chatter with the little maid, accompanied by the rattle of heated curling-irons and splashing of bath sponges. Occasionally, too, there was a little dispute on the subject of ribands or curls or such things. Mary's French, which was derived from the Histoire de Charles douze, the Aventures de Telemaque and other lofty books, found an end when it came to these discussions.

About half-past ten the lady slipped from her room. Then one could hear her tap at her uncle's door, or call a laughing good-morning to him from the hall.

From now on the maid reigned supreme in the room. She straightened it, sang, rattled the curling-irons even longer than for her mistress, tripped up and down, probably in front of the mirror, and received the kindly attentions of several waiters. From noon on everything was silent and remained silent until dusk. Then the lady returned. The little songs she sang were of the very kind that one might well sing if, with full heart, one gazes out upon the sea, while the orange-blossoms are fragrant and the boughs of the eucalyptus rustle. They proved to Mary that in that sunny creature, as in herself, there dwelt that gentle, virginal yearning that had always been to her a source of dreamy happiness.

At half-past five o'clock the maid knocked at the door. Then began giggling and whispering as of two school-girls. Again sounded the rattle of the curling-irons and the rustling of silken skirts. The fragrance of unknown perfumes and essences penetrated into Mary's room, and she absorbed it eagerly.

The dinner-bell rang and the room was left empty.

At ten o'clock there resounded a merry: “Bonne nuit, mon oncle!

Angeline, the maid, received her mistress at the door and performed the necessary services more quietly than before. Then she went out, received by the waiters, who were on the stairs.

Then followed, in there, a brief evening prayer, carelessly and half poutingly gabbled as by a tired child. At eleven the keyhole grew dark. And during the hours of Mary's heaviest service, there sounded within the peaceful drawing of uninterrupted breath.

This breathing was a consolation to her during the terrible, creeping hours, whose paralysing monotony was only interrupted by anxious crises in the patient's condition.

The breathing seemed to her a greeting from a pure and sisterly soul—a greeting from that dear land of joy where one can laugh by day and sing in the dusk and sleep by night.

Nathaniel loved the hymns for the dying.

He asserted that they filled him with true mirth. The more he could gibe at hell or hear the suffering of the last hours put to scorn, the more could he master a kind of grim humour. He, the shepherd of souls, felt it his duty to venture upon the valley of the shadow to which he had so often led the trembling candidate of death, with the boldness of a hero in battle.

This poor, timid soul, who had never been able to endure the angry barking of a dog, played with the terror of death like a bull-necked gladiator.

“Read me a song of death, but a strengthening one,” he would say repeatedly during the day, but also at night, if he could not sleep. He needed it as a child needs its cradle song. Often he was angry when in her confusion and blinded by unshed tears, she chose a wrong one. Like a literary connoisseur who rolls a Horatian ode or a Goethean lyric upon his tongue—even thus he enjoyed these sombre stanzas.

There was one: “I haste to my eternal home,” in which the beyond was likened to a bridal chamber and to a “crystal sea of blessednesses.” There was another: “Greatly rejoice now, O my soul,” which would admit no redeeming feature about this earth, and was really a prayer for release. And there was one filled with the purest folly of Christendom: “In peace and joy I fare from hence.” And this one promised a smiling sleep. But they were all overshadowed by that rejoicing song: “Thank God, the hour has come!” which, like a cry of victory, points proudly and almost sarcastically to the conquered miseries of the earth.

The Will to Live of the poor flesh intoxicated itself with these pious lies as with some hypnotic drug. But at the next moment it recoiled and gazed yearningly and eager eyed out into the sweet and sinful world, which didn't tally in the least with that description of it as a vale of tears, of which the hymns were so full.

Mary read obediently what he demanded. Close to her face she held the narrow hymn-book, fighting down her sobs. For he did not think of the tortures he prepared for his anxiously hoping wife.

Why did he thirst for death since he knew that he must not die?

Not yet. Ah, not yet! Now that suddenly a whole, long, unlived life lay between them—a life they had never even suspected.

She could not name it, this new, rich life, but she felt it approaching, day by day. It breathed its fragrant breath into her face and poured an exquisite bridal warmth into her veins.

It was on the fourth day of his imprisonment in his room. The physician had promised him permission to go out on the morrow.

His recovery was clear.

She sat at the window and inhaled with quivering nostrils the sharp fragrance of the burning pine cones that floated to her in bluish waves.

The sun was about to set. An unknown bird sat, far below, in the orange grove and, as if drunk with light and fragrance, chirped sleepily and ended with a fluting tone.

Now that the great dread of the last few days was taken from her, that sweet languor the significance of which she could not guess came over her again.

Her neighbour had already come home. She opened her window and closed it, only to open it again. From time to time she sang a few brief tones, almost like the strange bird in the grove.

Then her door rattled and Angeline's voice cried out with jubilant laughter: “Une lettre, Madame, une lettre!”

Une lettre—de qui?

De lui!

Then a silence fell, a long silence.

Who was this “he?” Surely some one at home. It was the hour of the mail delivery.

But the voice of the maid soon brought enlightenment.

She had managed the affair cleverly. She had met him in the hall and saluted him so that he had found the courage to address her. And just now he had pressed the envelope, together with a twenty-franc piece, into her hand. He asserted that he had an important communication to make to her mistress, but had never found an opportunity to address himself to her in person.

Tais-toi donc—on nous entend!”

And from now on nothing was to be heard but whispering and giggling.

Mary felt now a wave of hotness, started from her nape and overflowing her face.

Listening and with beating heart, she sat there.

What in all the world could he have written? For that it was he, she could no longer doubt.

Perhaps he had declared his love and begged for the gift of her hand.
 A dull feeling of pain, the cause of which was dark to her, oppressed her heart.

And then she smiled—a smile of renouncement, although there was surely nothing here for her to renounce!

And anyhow—the thing was impossible. For she, to whom such an offer is made does not chat with a servant girl. Such an one flees into some lonely place, kneels down, and prays to God for enlightenment and grace in face of so important a step.

But indeed she did send the girl away, for the latter's slippers could he heard trailing along the hall.

Then was heard gentle, intoxicated laughter, full of restrained jubilation and arch triumph: “O comme je suis heureuse! Comme je suis heureuse!”

Mary felt her eyes grow moist. She felt glad and poignantly sad at the same time. She would have liked to kiss and bless the other woman, for now it was clear that he had come to claim her as his bride.

“If she doesn't pray, I will pray for her,” she thought, and folded her hands. Then a voice sounded behind her, hollow as the roll of falling earth; rasping as coffin cords:

“Read me a song of death, Mary.”

A shudder came over her. She jumped up. And she who had hitherto taken up the hymn-book at his command without hesitation or complaint, fell down beside his bed and grasped his emaciated arm: “Have pity—I can't! I can't!”

Three days passed. The sick man preferred to stay in bed, although his recovery made enormous strides. Mary brewed his teas, gave him his drops, and read him his songs of death. That one attempt at rebellion had remained her only one.

She heard but little of her neighbour. It seemed that that letter had put an end to her talkative merriment. The happiness which she had so jubilantly confessed seemed to have been of brief duration.

And in those hours when Mary was free to pursue her dreams, she shared the other's yearning and fear. Probably the old uncle had made difficulties; had refused his consent, or even demanded the separation of the lovers.

Perhaps the dark gentleman had gone away. Who could tell?

“What strange eyes he had,” she thought at times, and whenever she thought that, she shivered, for it seemed to her that his hot, veiled glance was still upon her.

“I wonder whether he is really a good man?” she asked herself. She would have liked to answer this question in the affirmative, but there
 was something that kept her from doing so. And there was another something in her that took but little note of that aspect, but only prayed that those two might be happy together, happy as she herself had never been, happy as—and here lay the secret.

It was a Sunday evening, the last one in January.

Nathaniel lay under the bed-clothes and breathed with difficulty. His fever was remarkably low, but he was badly smothered.

The lamp burned on the table—a reading lamp had been procured with difficulty and had been twice carried off in favour of wealthier guests. Toward the bed Mary had shaded the lamp with a piece of red blotting paper from her portfolio. A rosy shimmer poured out over the couch of the ill man, tinted the red covers more red, and caused a deceptive glow of health to appear on his cheek.

The flasks and vials on the table glittered with an equivocal friendliness, as though something of the demeanour of him who had prescribed their contents adhered to them.

Between them lay the narrow old hymnal and the gilt figures, “1795" shimmered in the middle of the worn and shabby covers.

The hour of retirement had come. The latest of the guests, returning from the reading room, had said good-night to each other in the hall. Angeline had been dismissed. Her giggles floated away into silence along the bannisters and the last of her adorers tiptoed by to turn out the lights.

From the next room there came no sound. She was surely asleep, although her breathing was inaudible.

Mary sat at the table. Her head was heavy and she stared into the luminous circle of the lamp. She needed sleep. Yet she was not sleepy. Every nerve in her body quivered with morbid energy.

A wish of the invalid called her to his side.

“The pillow has a lump,” he said, and tried to turn over on his other side.

Ah, these pillows of sea-grass. She patted, she smoothed, she did her best, but his head found no repose.

“Here's another night full of the torment and terror of the flesh,” he said with difficulty, mouthing each word.

“Do you want a drink?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“The stuff is bitter—but you see—this fear—there's the air and it fills everything—they say it's ten miles high—and a man like myself can't—get enough—you see I'm getting greedy.” The mild jest upon his lips was so unwonted that it frightened her.

“I'd like to ask you to open the window.”

She opposed him.

“The night air,” she urged; “the draught——”

But that upset him.

“If you can't do me so small a favour in my suffering—”

“Forgive me,” she said, “it was only my anxiety for you—”

She got up and opened the French window that gave upon a narrow balcony.

The moonlight flooded the room.

Pressing her hands to her breast, she inhaled the first aromatic breath of the night air which cooled and caressed her hot face.

“Is it better so?” she asked, turning around.

He nodded. “It is better so.”

Then she stepped out on the balcony. She could scarcely drink her fill of air and moonlight.

But she drew back, affrighted. What she had just seen was like an apparition.

On the neighbouring balcony stood, clad in white, flowing garments of lace, a woman's figure, and stared with wide open eyes into the moonlight.

It was she—her friend.

Softly Mary stepped out again and observed her, full of shy curiosity.
 The moonlight shone full upon the delicate slim face, that seemed to shine with an inner radiance. The eye had a yearning glow. A smile, ecstatic and fearful at once, made the lips quiver, and the hands that grasped the iron railing pulsed as if in fear and expectation.

Mary heard her own heart begin to beat. A hot flush rose into her face?

What was all that? What did it mean?

Such a look, such a smile, she had never seen in her life. And yet both seemed infinitely familiar to her. Thus a woman must look who—

She had no time to complete the thought, for a fit of coughing recalled her to Nathaniel.

A motion of his hand directed her to close the window and the shutters. It would have been better never to have opened them. Better for her, too, perhaps.

Then she sat down next to him and held his head until the paroxysm was over.

He sank back, utterly exhausted. His hand groped for hers. With abstracted caresses she touched his weary fingers.

Her thoughts dwelt with that white picture without. That poignant feeling of happiness that she had almost lost during the past few days, arose in her with a hitherto unknown might.

And now the sick man began to speak.

“You have always been good to me, Mary,” he said. “You have always had patience with me.”

“Ah, don't speak so,” she murmured.

“And I wish I could say as full of assurance as you could before the throne of God: 'Father, I have been true to the duty which you have allotted to me.'“

Her hand quivered in his. A feeling of revulsion smothered the gentleness of their mood. His words had struck her as a reproach.

Fulfillment of duty! That was the great law to which all human kind was subject for the sake of God. This law had joined her hand to his, had accompanied her into the chastity of her bridal bed, and had kept its vigil through the years by her hearth and in her heart. And thus love itself had not been difficult to her, for it was commanded to her and consecrated before the face of God.

And he? He wished for nothing more, knew nothing more. Indeed, what lies beyond duty would probably have seemed burdensome to him, if not actually sinful.

But there was something more! She knew it now. She had seen it in that glance, moist with yearning, lost in the light.

There was something great and ecstatic and all-powerful, something before which she quailed like a child who must go into the dark, something that she desired with every nerve and fibre.

Her eye fastened itself upon the purple square of blotting paper which looked, in the light of the lamp, like glowing metal.

She did not know how long she had sat there. It might have been minutes or hours. Often enough the morning had caught her brooding thus.

The sick man's breath came with greater difficulty, his fingers grasped hers more tightly.

“Do you feel worse?” she asked.

“I am a little afraid,” he said; “therefore, read me——”

He stopped, for he felt the quiver of her hand.

“You know, if you don't want to—” He was wounded in his wretched valetudinarian egotism, which was constantly on the scent of neglect.

“Oh, but I do want to; I want to do everything that might——”

She hurried to the table, pushed the glittering bottles aside, grasped the hymnal and read at random.

But she had to stop, for it was a prayer for rain that she had begun.

Then, as she was turning the leaves of the book, she heard the hall door of the next room open with infinite caution; she heard flying, trembling footsteps cross the room from the balcony.

“Chut!” whispered a trembling voice.

And the door closed as with a weary moan.

What was that?

A suspicion arose in her that brought the scarlet of shame into her cheek. The whispering next door began anew, passionate, hasty, half-smothered by anxiety and delight. Two voices were to be distinguished: a lighter voice which she knew, and a duller voice, broken into, now and then, by sonorous tones.

The letters dislimned before her eyes. The hymn-book slipped from her hands. In utter confusion she stared toward the door.

That really existed? Such things were possible in the world; possible among people garbed in distinction, of careful Christian training, to whom one looks up as to superior beings?

There was a power upon earth that could make the delicate, radiant, distinguished woman so utterly forget shame and dignity and womanliness, that she would open her door at midnight to a man who had not been wedded to her in the sight of God?

If that could happen, what was there left to cling to in this world? Where was one's faith in honour, fidelity, in God's grace and one's own human worth? A horror took hold of her so oppressive that she thought she must cry out aloud.

With a shy glance she looked at her husband. God grant that he hear nothing.

She was ashamed before him. She desired to call out, to sing, laugh, only to drown the noise of that whispering which assailed her ear like the wave of a fiery sea.

But no, he heard nothing.

His sightless eyes stared at the ceiling. He was busied with his breathing. His chest heaved and fell like a defective machine.

He didn't even expect her to read to him now. She went up to the bed and asked, listening with every nerve: “Do you want to sleep, Nathaniel?”

He lowered his eyelids in assent.

“Yes—read,” he breathed.

“Shall I read softly?”

Again he assented.

“But read—don't sleep.”

Fear flickered in his eyes.

“No, no,” she stammered.

He motioned her to go now, and again became absorbed in the problem of breathing.

Mary took up the hymnal.

“You are to read a song of death,” she said to herself, for her promise must be kept. And as though she had not understood her own admonition, she repeated: “You are to read a song of death.”

But her hearing was morbidly alert, and while the golden figures on the book danced a ghostly dance before her eyes, she heard again what she desired to hear. It was like the whispering of the wind against a forbidden gate. She caught words:

Je t'aime—follement—j'en mourrai—je t'adore—mon amour—mon amour.

Mary closed her eyes. It seemed to her again as though hot waves streamed over her. And she had lost shame, too.

For there was something in all that which silenced reproach, which made this monstrous deed comprehensible, even natural. If one was so mad with love, if one felt that one could die of it!

So that existed, and was not only the lying babble of romances?

And her spirit returned and compared her own experience of love with what she witnessed now.

She had shrunk pitifully from his first kiss. When he had gone, she had embraced her mother's knees, in fear and torment at the thought of following this strange man. And she remembered how, on the evening of her wedding, her mother had whispered into her ear, “Endure, my child, and pray to God, for that is the lot of woman.” And it was that which, until to-day, she had called love.

Oh, those happy ones there, those happy ones!

“Mary,” the hollow voice from the bed came.

She jumped up. “What?”

“You—don't read.”

“I'll read; I'll read.”

Her hands grovelled among the rough, sticky pages. An odour as of decaying foliage, which she had never noted before, came from the book. It was such an odour as comes from dark, ill-ventilated rooms, and early autumn and everyday clothes.

At last she found what she was seeking. “Kyrie eleison! Christe eleison! Dear God, Father in heaven, have mercy upon us!”

Her lips babbled what her eyes saw, but her heart and her senses prayed another prayer: “Father in Heaven, who art love and mercy, do not count for sin to those two that which they are committing against themselves. Bless their love, even if they do not desire Thy blessing. Send faithfulness into their hearts that they cleave to one another and remain grateful for the bliss which Thou givest them. Ah, those happy ones, those happy ones!”

Tears came into her eyes. She bent her face upon the yellow leaves of the book to hide her weeping. It seemed to her suddenly as though she understood the speech spoken in this land of eternal spring by sun and sea, by hedges of flowers and evergreen trees, by the song of birds and the laughter of man. The secret which she had sought to solve by day and by night lay suddenly revealed before her eyes.

In a sudden change of feeling her heart grew cold toward that sinful pair for which she had but just prayed. Those people became as strangers to her and sank into the mist. Their whispering died away as if it came from a great distance.

It was her own life with which she was now concerned. Gray and morose with its poverty stricken notion of duty, the past lay behind her. Bright and smiling a new world floated into her ken.

She had sworn to love him. She had cheated him. She had let him know want at her side.

Now that she knew what love was, she would reward him an hundred-fold. She, too, could love to madness, to adoration, to death. And she must love so, else she would die of famishment.

Her heart opened. Waves of tenderness, stormy, thunderous, mighty, broke forth therefrom.

Would he desire all that love? And understand it? Was he worthy of it? What did that matter?

She must give, give without measure and without reward, without thought and without will, else she would smother under all her riches.

And though he was broken and famished and mean of mind and wretched, a weakling in body and a dullard in soul; and though he lay there emaciated and gasping, a skeleton almost, moveless, half given over to dust and decay—what did it matter?

She loved him, loved him with that new and great love because he alone in all the world was her own. He was that portion of life and light and happiness which fate had given her.

She sprang up and stretched out her arms toward him.

“You my only one, my all,” she whispered, folding her hands under her chin and staring at him.

His chest seemed quieter. He lay there in peace.

Weeping with happiness, she threw herself down beside him and kissed his hands. And then, as he took no notice of all that, a slow astonishment came over her. Also, she had an insecure feeling that his hand was not as usual.

Powerless to cry out, almost to breathe, she looked upon him. She felt his forehead; she groped for his heart. All was still and cold. Then she knew.

The bell—the waiters—the physician—to what purpose? There was no need of help here. She knelt down and wanted to pray, and make up for her neglect.

A vision arose before her: the widow's house at home; her mother; the tile oven; her old maidenish sisters rattling their wooden crocheting hooks—and she herself beside them, her blonde hair smoothed with water, a little riband at her breast, gazing out upon the frozen fields, and throttling, throttling with love. For he whom fate had given her could use her love no longer.

From the next room sounded the whispering, monotonous, broken, assailing her ears in glowing waves:

J'en mourrai—je t'adore—mon amour.

That was his song of death. She felt that it was her own, too.

 
 
 

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