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THE SON OF HIS MOTHER
Authorised Translation by H. Raahauge
London: John Lane The Bodley Head New York: John Lane Company Toronto: Bell & Cockburn MCMXIII
The Anchor Press, Ltd., Tiptree Essex
THE SON OF HIS MOTHER
The husband and wife were of a literary turn of mind, and as they had the money to cultivate their artistic tastes he wrote a little and she painted. They also played and sang duets together, at least they had done so when they were first married; now they went to concerts and the opera more frequently instead. They were liked wherever they went, they had friends, they were called "charming people," and still something was wanting to complete their happiness—they had no children.
And they would probably not have any now, as they had been married for some time, and the likelihood of children being born to them was very remote.
No doubt he sighed and knit his brow in unguarded moments when he sat at his desk in his office, but especially when he passed through the villages in the Brandenburg March on the rides he took in the more distant environs of Berlin—partly for his health, partly because he still retained the liking for riding from the time he was in the cavalry—and saw swarms of little flaxen-haired children romping on the sandy roads. However, he did not let his wife perceive that he missed something, for he loved her.
But she could not control herself in the same manner. The longer she was married the more nervous she became. At times she felt irritated with her husband for no reason. She persistently turned her eyes away from the announcement of births in the newspapers with a certain shrinking, and, if her glance happened once in a way to fall on one in which happy parents notified the birth of a son, she put the paper aside hastily.
In former years Kate Schlieben had knitted, crocheted, embroidered and sewn all sorts of pretty little children's garments—she used to be quite famous for the daintiness of her little baby jackets trimmed with blue and pink ribbons, all her newly married acquaintances would ask her for the wonderful little things—but now she had finally given up that sort of work. She had given up hope. What good did it do her to put her forefingers into the tiny sleeves of a baby's first jacket, and, holding it out in front of her, gaze at it a long, long time with dreamy eyes? It only tortured her.
And she felt the torture twice as much in those grey days that suddenly put in an appearance without any reason, that creep in silently even in the midst of sunshine. On those occasions she would lie on the couch in her room that was furnished with such exquisite taste—really artistically—and close her eyes tightly. And then all at once a shout, clear, shrill, triumphant, like the cry of a swallow on the wing, would ascend from the street, from the promenade under the chestnut-trees. She stopped her ears when she heard that cry, which penetrated further than any other tone, which soared up into the ether as swiftly as an arrow, and cradled itself up there blissfully. She could not bear to hear anything like that—she was becoming morbid.
Alas, when she and her husband grew old, with minds no longer so receptive and too weary to seek incitement in the world, who would bring it to them in their home? Who would bring them anything of what was going on outside? What youth with his freshness, with the joyousness that envelops those of twenty like a dainty garment, that beams from smooth brows like warmth and sunshine, would give them back a breath of their youth, which had already disappeared in accordance with the laws of Time? Who would wax enthusiastic at the things that had once made them enthusiastic, and which they would enjoy once more as though they were new for them too? Who would fill the house and garden with his laughter, with that careless laughter that is so infectious? Who would kiss them with warm lips, and make them happy by his tenderness? Who would carry them on his wings with him, so that they did not feel they were weary?
Alas, there is no second youth for those who are childless. Nobody would come into the inheritance of delight in what was beautiful, of taste for what was beautiful, of enthusiasm for art and artists which they would leave behind them. Nobody would guard reverently all those hundreds of things and nicknacks she had gathered together so tastefully in her house with the delight of a collector. And nobody would, alas, hold the hand that was fast growing cold with loving hands, in that last difficult hour which all dread, and cry: "Father, Mother, don't go! Not yet!" Oh, God, such loving hands would not close their eyes——
When Paul Schlieben used to come home from his office in those days he was co-partner in a large business that his grandfather had founded and his father raised to a high position—he often found his wife's sweet face stained with tears, her delicate complexion marred by constant weeping. And her mouth only forced itself to smile, and in her beautiful brown eyes there lurked a certain melancholy.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. The lady was suffering from nerves, that was what was the matter with her. She had too much time for brooding, she was left to herself too much.
In order to alter this, her anxious husband withdrew from the business for an indefinite period. His partners could get on just as well without him. The doctor was right, he must devote himself more to his wife; they were both so lonely, so entirely dependent on each other.
It was decided they should travel; there was no reason whatever why they should remain at home. The beautiful house was given up, their furniture, all their costly things were stored. If they cared to do so they could remain away for years, get impressions, amuse themselves. Kate would paint landscapes in beautiful countries, and he—well, he could easily find compensation in writing, should he miss his usual work.
They went to Italy and Corsica—still further, to Egypt and Greece. They saw the Highlands, Sweden and Norway, very many beautiful places.
Kate pressed her husband's hand gratefully. Her susceptible mind waxed enthusiastic, and her talent for painting, which was by no means insignificant, felt powerfully stimulated all at once. How splendid to be able to paint, to keep hold of all that glow of colour, that wonderful effect of tone that revealed itself to her delighted eyes on her canvas.
She was so eager that she went out with her painting materials in the morning, whether it was at Capri, on the shores of the blue Bosphorus, in the yellow sand of the desert, facing the precipitous pinnacles in the Fjords, or in the rose gardens of the Riviera. Her delicate face got sunburnt; she no longer even paid any attention to her hands, which she used to take such care of. The ardent longing to manifest herself had seized hold of her. Thank God, she could create something now. The miserable feeling of a useless life did not exist any longer, nor the torturing knowledge: your life ceases the moment your eyes close, there is nothing of you that will survive you. Now she would at least leave something behind that she had produced, even if it were only a picture. Her paintings increased in number; quite a quantity of rolls of canvas were dragged about now wherever they went.
At first Paul Schlieben was very pleased to see his wife so enthusiastic. He politely carried her camp-stool and easel for her, and never lost patience when he remained for hours and hours near her whilst she worked. He lay in the scanty shadow of a palm-tree, and used to follow the movements of her brush over the top of his book. How fortunate that her art gave her so much satisfaction. Even though it was a little fatiguing for him to lie about doing nothing he must not say anything, no, he must not, for he had nothing to offer her as a compensation, nothing whatever. And he sighed. It was the same sigh that had escaped him when the numerous flaxen-haired little children were playing about on the sandy roads in the Brandenburg March, the same sigh which Sundays drew from him, when he used to see all the proletariat of the town—man and wife and children, children, children—wandering to the Zoo. Yes, he was right—he passed his hand a little nervously across his forehead—that writer was right—now, who could it be?—who had once said somewhere: "Why does a man marry? Only to have children, heirs of his body, of his blood. Children to whom he can pass on the wishes and hopes that are in him and also the achievements; children who are descended from him like shoots from a tree, children who enable a man to live eternally." That was the only way in which life after death could be understood—life eternal. The resurrection of the body, which the Church promises, was to be interpreted as the renewal of one's own personality in the coming generations. Oh, there was something great, something indescribably comforting in such a survival.
"Are you speculating about something?" asked his wife. She had looked up from her easel for a moment.
"Eh? What? Did you say anything, darling?" The man started up in a fright, as one who has been straying along forbidden paths.
She laughed at his absent-mindedness; it was getting worse and worse. But what was he thinking of? Business?—surely not. But perhaps he wanted to write a novel, a tale? Why should he not try his hand at that for once in a way? That was something quite different from sending short chatty accounts of one's journey to one of the papers. And of course he would be able to do it. People who had not half the education, not half the knowledge, not half the aesthetic refinement of feeling he had wrote quite readable books.
She talked brightly and persuasively to him, but he shook his head with a certain resignation: nonsense, neither novels nor any other kind of writing. And he thought to himself: it is always said that a piece of work is like a child—that is to say, only a truly great piece of work, of course. Was the work he and his wife created work in that sense? Work that would exist eternally? He suddenly found things to censure severely in her picture, which he had politely admired only the day before.
She got quite frightened about it. Why was he so irritable to-day? Was he going to develop nerves at the finish? Yes, it was evident, the warm air of the south did not suit him, he had lost his briskness, looked so tired. There was nothing for it, her husband was more to her than her picture, she would leave off her painting at once.
And that was what happened. They went away, travelled from one place to another, from one hotel to another, along the lakes, over the frontier, until they made a somewhat longer stay high up among the Alps in Switzerland.
Instead of lying under a palm-tree he lay in the shadow of a fir—now his wife was painting—and followed the movements of her brush with his eyes over the top of his open book.
She was busily painting, for she had discovered a delightful subject. That green alpine meadow, with its wealth of flowers as variegated as they could possibly be and the backs of the brown cows with the sun shining on them, was as full of charm as the Garden of Eden on the first day of creation. In her eagerness to see she had pushed her broad-brimmed hat back, and the warm summer sun was burning little golden spots on her delicate cheeks and the narrow bridge of her finely shaped nose. She held the brush that she had dipped into the green on her palette up against the green of the meadow in order to compare the two, and blinked with half-closed eyes to see if she had got the colour right.
At that moment a sound made her start—it was half a growl of displeasure at the disturbance, half a murmur of approval. Her husband had risen and was looking at a couple of children who had approached them noiselessly. They were offering rhododendrons for sale, the girl had a small basket full of them, the boy was carrying his nosegay in his hand.
What exceedingly pretty creatures they were, the girl so blue-eyed and gentle, the boy a regular little scamp. The woman's heart swelled. She bought all the rhododendrons from them, even gave them more than they asked for them.
That was a stroke of great luck for the little Swiss boy and girl—just think, to get more than they had asked for. They blushed with happiness, and when the strange lady asked them questions in a kind voice, they commenced to chatter ingenuously.
She would have to paint those children, they were really too delightful, they were a thousand times more beautiful than the most beautiful landscape.
Paul Schlieben looked on with a strange uneasiness whilst his wife painted the children, first the big girl and then the small boy. How intently she gazed at the boy's round face. Her eyes were brilliant, she never seemed to be tired, and only paused when the children grew impatient. All her thoughts turned on the painting. Would the children come again that day? Was the light good? Surely there would not be a storm to prevent the children from coming? Nothing else was of any interest to her. She displayed great zeal. And still the pictures turned out bad; the features were like theirs, but there was no trace of the child-mind in them. He saw it clearly: those who are childless cannot paint children.
Poor woman! He looked on at her efforts with a feeling of deep compassion. Was not her face becoming soft like a mother's, lovely and round when she bent down to the children? The Madonna type—and still this woman had been denied children.
No, he could not look on at it any longer, it made him ill. The man bade the children go home in a gruff voice. The pictures were ready, what was the good of touching them up any more? That did not make them any better, on the contrary.
That evening Kate cried as she used to cry at home. And she was angry with her husband. Why did he not let her have that pleasure? Why did he all at once say they were to leave? She did not understand him. Were the children not sweet, delightful? Was it because they disturbed him?
"Yes," was all he said. There was a hard dry sound in his voice—a "yes" that came with such difficulty—and she raised her head from the handkerchief in which she had buried it and looked across at him. He was standing at the window in the carpeted room of the hotel, his hands resting on the window-ledge, his forehead pressed against the pane. He was gazing silently at the vast landscape before him, in which the mountaintops covered with snow that glowed in the radiance of the setting sun spoke to him of immortality. How he pressed his lips together, how nervously his moustache trembled.
She crept up to him and laid her head on his shoulder. "What is the matter with you?" she asked him softly. "Do you miss your work—yes, it's your work, isn't it? I was afraid of that. You are getting tired of this, you must be doing something again. I promise you I'll be reasonable—never complain any more—only stop here a little longer, only three weeks longer—two weeks."
He remained silent.
"Only ten—eight—six days more. Not even that?" she said, bitterly disappointed, for he had shaken his head. She wound her arms round his neck. "Only five more—four—three days, please. Why not? Those few days, please only three days more." She positively haggled for each day. "Oh, then at least two days more."
She sobbed aloud, her arms fell from his neck—he must allow her two days.
Her voice cut him to the heart. He had never heard her beg like that before, but he made a stand against the feeling of yielding that was creeping over him. Only no sentimentality. It was better to go away from there quickly, much better for her.
"We're going away to-morrow."
And as she looked at him with wide-open horror-struck eyes and pallid cheeks, the words escaped from his lips although he had not intended saying them, drawn from him by a bitterness that he could not master any longer:
"They are not yours!"
And they went away.
But it seemed to the woman as though every joy had disappeared with the emerald green meadow in the Alps, in which she had painted the lovely children. There was the same old nervous twitch in her face, the corners of her mouth drooped slightly and she cried very easily. Paul Schlieben watched his wife with positive dismay. Oh dear, had it all been in vain, the giving up of his work, all this travelling about without making any plans that was so fatiguing? Had the old melancholy frame of mind taken possession of her again?
When he saw her sitting there so disinclined to exert herself, her hands lying idle in her lap, a feeling akin to fury came over him. Why did she not do something? Why did she not paint? That confounded meadow in the Alps was surely not the only place where she could work. Was it not beautiful here as well?
They had settled down in the Black Forest. But it was in vain that he hoped from day to day that one of the quiet green wooded valleys or one of the nut-brown maidens of the Black Forest with her cherry-red hat and enormous red umbrella, as Vautier has painted them, would tempt her to bring out her painting materials. She felt no inclination—nay, she had positively a kind of dread of touching her brushes again.
He reproached himself bitterly in secret. Would it not have been better to have left her that pleasure and not have interfered? Still—the thing would have had to end some time, and the longer it had lasted the more difficult the separation would have been. But he had made up his mind about one thing, they would return to Berlin again late in the autumn. With the best will in the world he would not be able to stand it any longer. He was heartily tired of this wandering from hotel to hotel, this lounging about the world with nothing to show for it but an occasional short article for the papers, a chatty account of a journey to some corner of the earth of which people knew but little. He longed for a home of his own again, and felt a great desire to return to his business, which he had often looked upon as a fetter and so prosaic whilst he was in it. But Kate! When he thought of her again spending many hours alone at home, with no interests beyond herself and her reading for in her state of hypersensitiveness she found little pleasure in associating with other women—a feeling of hopelessness came over him. Then there would be the same sad eyes again, the same melancholy smile, the old irritable moods from which the whole house used to suffer, herself the most.
And he subjected himself to an examination as though blaming himself for it. He passed his whole life in review: had he committed any crime that no son had been given to him, no daughter? Ah, if only Kate had a child everything would be right. Then she would have quite enough to do, would be entirely taken up with the little creature round which the love of parents, full of hope and entitled to hope, revolves in an ever-renewed circle.
Both husband and wife were torturing themselves, for the woman's thoughts especially always ended at that one point. Now that she had been separated from those dear children, from the, alas, much too short happiness she had experienced that summer, it seemed to have become quite clear to her what she missed—for had it not only weighed on her like a painful suspicion before? But now, now the terrible unvarnished truth was there: everything people otherwise call "happiness" in this world is nothing compared to a child's kiss, to its smile, to its nestling in its mother's lap.
She had always given the children in the meadow a tender kiss when they came and went, now she longed for those kisses. Her husband's kiss did not replace them; she would soon have been married fifteen years, his kiss was no longer a sensation, it had become a habit. But a kiss from a child's lips, that are so fresh, so untouched, so timid and yet so confiding, was something quite new to her, something, exceedingly sweet. A feeling of happiness had flowed through her soul on those occasions as well as the quite physical pleasure of being able to bury her mouth in those delicately soft and yet so firm cheeks, which health and youth had covered with a soft down like that on the cheeks of a peach. Her thoughts always wandered back to that meadow in the Alps, full of longing. And this longing of hers that was never stilled magnified what had happened, and surrounded the figures that had appeared in her life for so short a time with the whole halo of tender memories. Her idle thoughts spun long threads. As she longed for those little ones so they would also be longing for her, they would wander across the meadow weeping, and the large present of money she had left behind for each of them with the proprietor of the hotel—she had been obliged to leave without saying good-bye to them—would not console them; they would stand outside the door and cast their eyes up to the windows from which their friend so often had waved to them. No, she could not forgive Paul for showing so little comprehension of her feelings.
The stay in the Black Forest, whose velvety slopes reminded them too much of the Swiss meadows and from whose points of view you could look over to the Alps on a clear day, became a torture to both the man and woman. They felt they must get away; the dark firs, the immense green forest became too monotonous for them. Should they not try some seaside resort for once? The sea is ever new. And it was also just the season for the seaside. The wind blew already over the stubble in the fields, as they drove down to the plain.
They chose a Belgian watering-place, one in which the visitors dress a great deal, and in which quite a cosmopolitan set of people offer something new to the eye every day. They both felt it, they had remained much too long in mountain solitudes.
During the first days the gay doings amused them, but then Paul and his wife, between whom something like a barrier had tried to push itself lately, both agreed all at once: this sauntering up and down of men who looked like fools, of women who if they did not belong to the demi-monde successfully imitated it, was not for them. Let them only get away.
The man proposed they should give up travelling entirely and return to Berlin a little earlier, but Kate would not listen to it. She had a secret dread of Berlin—oh, would she have to go back to her old life again? So far she had never asked herself what she had really expected from these long months of travel; but she had hoped for something—certainly. What?
Oh dear, now she would be so much alone again, and there was nothing, nothing that really filled her life entirely.
No, she was not able to return to Berlin yet. She told her husband that she felt she had not quite recovered yet—she was certainly anaemic, she was suffering from poorness of blood. She ought to have gone to Schwalbach, Franzensbad or some other iron springs long ago—who knows, perhaps many things would be different then.
He was not impatient—at least he did not show it—for he was moved with a deep compassion for her. Of course she should go to some iron springs; they ought to have tried them long ago, have made a point of it.
The Belgian doctor sent them to the well-known baths at Spa.
They arrived there full of hope. In her the hope was quite genuine. "You will see," she said to her husband in a brighter voice, "this will do me good. I have a vague feeling—no, I really feel quite sure that something good will happen to us here."
And he hoped so too. He forced himself to hope in order to please her. Oh, it would be enough, quite enough if the characteristics of the landscape won so much interest from her that she took up her painting again, which she had neglected entirely. How pleased he would be at even that. If her former zeal for art showed itself again, that was a thousand times more health-bringing than the strongest iron springs at Spa.
The heather was in bloom, the whole plateau was red, the purple sun set in a mass of purple.
It happened as he had hoped, that is to say, she did not begin to paint, but she made expeditions into the Ardennes and the Eifel with him on foot and in a carriage, and enjoyed them. The Venn had bewitched her. In her light-coloured dress she stood like a small speck of light in the immense seriousness of the landscape, protected her eyes with her hand from the view of the sun, which is so open there, so unobstructed either by tree or mountain, and took deep breaths of the sharp clear air that has not yet been vitiated by any smoke from human dwellings, hardly by human breath. Around her the Venn blossomed like a carpet of one colour, dark, calm, refreshing and beneficial to the eye; it was only here and there that the blue gentian and the white quivering flock of the cotton-grass were seen to raise their heads among the heather.
"Oh, how beautiful!" She said it with deep feeling. The melancholy of the landscape flattered her mood. There was no gaudy tone there that disturbed her, no medley of colours. Even the sun, which sets there in greater beauty than anywhere else—blushing so deeply that the whole sky blushes with it, that the winding Venn rivulet hedged in by cushions of moss, that every pool, every peat-hole full of water reflects its beams ruddy-gold, and the sad Venn itself wears a mantle of glowing splendour—even this sun brought no glaringly bright light with it. It displayed its mighty disc in a grand dignified manner, a serious victor after a serious struggle.
Kate looked into this marvellous sun with large eyes bathed in tears, until the last beam, the last rosy streak in the grey mass of clouds had vanished. Now it had gone—the heavens were dead—but in the morning it would be there again, an eternal, imperishable, never-conquered hope. Then should not, ought not the human heart to beat again too, revived anew, always full of hope?
Clouds of mist sped across the moor, veiled, indescribable, vague shapes. There was a whispering before the coming of the wind, a lisping through the heather and the cotton-grass—it seemed to Kate as though the Venn had something to tell her. What was it saying? Ah, it must be for some reason that she had come there, that she felt she was being held fast as though by a strong and still kind hand.
She walked on with quicker, more elastic steps, as though she were searching for something.
Her husband was delighted that his wife was so pleased with the neighbourhood. True, the landscape had no special attraction for him—was it not very desolate, monotonous and unfertile there? But the characteristic scenery was certainly harmonious, very harmonious—well, if she found pleasure in it, it was better than a paradise to him.
They often drove up to Baraque Michel, that lonely inn on the borders between Belgium and Prussia, in which the douaniers drank their drams of gin when on the look-out for smugglers, and where the peat-cutters dry their smocks that the mist has wetted and their saturated boots at the fire that is always burning on the hearth.
So many crosses in the Venn, so many human beings who have met with a fatal accident. Kate listened to the men's stories with a secret shudder—could the Venn be so terrible? and she questioned them again and again. Was it possible that the man from Xhoffraix, who had driven off to get peat litter, had been swallowed up there so close to the road with cart and horse, and that they had never, never seen anything of him again? And that cross there, so weather-beaten and black, how had that come into the middle of the marsh? Why had that travelling journeyman, whose intention it was to go along the high road from Malmedy to Eupen, gone so far astray? Had it been dark or had there been a heavy fall of snow so that he could not see, or was it the cold, that terrible cold, in which a weary man can freeze to death? Nothing of the kind; only a mist, a sudden mist, which confuses a man so, that he no longer knows which is forward or which is backward, which is left or which is right, that he loses all idea of where he is going, gets away from the road and runs round in a circle like a poor, mad, terrified animal. And all the mists that rise in the Venn when daylight disappears, are they the souls of those who have never been buried, and who in garments that are falling to pieces rise every night from their graves, which have neither been consecrated by a benediction nor by holy water and in which they cannot find rest?
That was a fairy tale. But was not everything there as in the fairy tale? So quite different to everywhere else in the world, in reality ugly and yet not ugly, in reality not beautiful and yet so exceedingly beautiful? And she herself, was she not quite a different being there? Did she not wander about full of hope, in blissful dreams, like one to whom something wonderful is to happen?
It was in the sixth week of their stay at Spa. The nights were already as cold as in winter, but the days were still sunny. It was always a long journey up to the inn even for the strong Ardennes horses, but Paul and his wife were there again to-day. Would they have to leave soon? Alas, yes. Kate had to confess it to herself with sorrow. Everything was very autumnal, the heather had finished flowering, the air was raw; the grass that had already been frozen during the night rustled under her feet. They could have found use for their winter clothes.
"Ugh, how cold," said the man shivering, and he turned up the collar of his overcoat. He wanted to twist a shawl round his wife's neck, but she resisted: "No, no!" She ran on in front of him through the rustling heather with quick steps. "Just look."
It was a wide view that presented itself to their eyes there on the highest point in the Venn, that is adorned with a rickety wooden tower. The whole large plateau covered with heather lay before them, with here and there a group of dark firs that only showed spreading branches on the side away from the storm. These firs that cowered so timidly were trees that had been planted there; they were hardly higher than the heather, and only recognisable on account of their different colour. And, here and there, there was a stray grey boulder and a cross that the wind had carried to the side of it. And a calm lay over the whole in the pale midday autumn light as though it were God's acre.
When they had climbed up the tower they saw still more. From the plateau they looked down into the valley: a blue expanse around them, blue from the darkness of the forests and from autumn vapours, and in the beautiful blue outstretched villages the white houses half hidden behind tall hedges. And here, looking down on Belgium, with its grey fumes hanging like a cloud in the clear transparent autumn air, lay the large town of Verviers with its church-towers and factory chimneys towering above it.
Kate heaved a sigh and shuddered involuntarily: oh, was the workaday world so near? Was grey life already approaching nearer and nearer to her wonderful fairy world?
Her husband gave a slight cough; he found it very cold up there. They went down from the tower, but when he wanted to take her back to the inn she resisted: "No, not yet, not yet. That's only the midday bell."
The bell was ringing in Fischbach Chapel, that ancient little church with its slated roof, in whose tower the great red lantern was formerly hoisted to point out the safe harbour to the wanderer swimming in the wild sea of mists, and the bell rung unceasingly to save the man who had lost his way through his ear should his eye fail him. The bell rang out clear and penetrating in the solitude, the only sound in the vast stillness.
"How touching that sound is." Kate stood with folded hands and looked into the wide expanse, her eyes swimming in tears. What a charm there was in this Venn. It encircled the soul as the tough underwood of the heather and the creeping tendrils of the club moss entangled the foot. When she thought of how soon she would have to leave it, to go away from that immense stillness that seemed to be concealing a secret, to be cherishing something marvellous in its deep lap, her heart contracted in sudden fear. What would happen to her, what would become of her? Her seeking soul stood like a child on the threshold of fairyland asking for something—was there to be no gift for her?
"What was that?" All at once she seized hold of her husband's arm with a low cry of terror. "Didn't you hear it as well?"
She had grown quite pale; she stood there with dilated eyes, raising herself on her toes with an involuntary movement and craning her neck forward.
"There it is again. Do you hear it?" Something like a child's soft whimpering had penetrated to her ear.
No, he had not heard anything. "I suppose there are some people in the neighbourhood. How you do frighten a body, Kate." He shook his head a little angrily. "You know very well that all the women and children have left their villages in the Venn to gather cranberries. That's all the harvest they have, you see. Look, the berries are quite ripe." Stooping down he took up a plant.
The small cluster of berries of a deep coral in colour formed a beautiful contrast to the glossy dark green of the small oval leaf. But there were also some flowers on the plant, small pure white flowers.
"Like myrtle, just like the flower on a myrtle," she said, taking the plant out of his hand. "And the leaves are also exactly like myrtle leaves." Twisting the stalk round between her finger and thumb she gazed at it thoughtfully. "The Venn myrtle." And, raising the little flower to her mouth, she kissed it, full of delight.
"Do you still remember—that time—on the evening of our wedding-day, do you still remember? You kissed the myrtle that had been in my wreath and I kissed it too, and then we kissed each other. Then—then—oh, how happy we were then." She said it very softly, as though lost in sweet memories.
He smiled, and as she swayed towards him, with a dreamy look in her eyes that were fixed the whole time on the little green plant, he drew her closer and laid his arm round her. "And are we not—not"—he wanted to say "not just as happy," but all he said was: "not happy to-day, too?"
She did not answer, she remained silent. But then, hurling the plant with its glossy leaves away with a sudden movement, she turned and ran away from him blindly into the Venn, without noticing where she was going.
"What's the matter, Kate?" He hurried after her, terrified. She ran so quickly that he could not overtake her at once. "Kate, you'll fall. Wait, I say. Kate, what is the matter with you?"
No answer. But he saw from the convulsive movements of her shoulders that she was weeping violently. Oh dear, what was the matter now? He looked troubled as he ran after her across the desolate Venn. Was she never to get any better? It was really enough to make a fellow lose all pleasure in life. How stupid it had been to bring her to the Venn—real madness. There was no brightness to be found there. A hopelessness lurked in that unlimited expanse, a terrible hardness in that sharp aromatic air, an unbearable melancholy in that vast stillness.
The man only heard his own quickened breathing. He ran more and more quickly, all at once he became very anxious about his wife. Now he had almost reached her—he had already stretched out his hand to seize hold of her fluttering dress—then she turned round, threw herself into his arms and sobbed: "Oh, here's both, blossom and fruit. But our myrtle has faded and not borne fruit—not fruit—we poor people."
So that was it—the same thing again? Confound it. He who as a rule was so temperate stamped his foot violently. Anger, shame, and a certain feeling of pain drove the blood to his head. There he stood now in that lonely place with his wife in his arms weeping most pitifully, whilst he himself was deserving of much pity in his own opinion.
"Don't be angry, don't be angry," she implored, clinging more closely to him. "You see, I had hoped—oh, hoped for certain—expected—I don't know myself what, but still I had expected something here—and today—just now everything has become clear. All, all was in vain. Let me cry."
And she wept as one in whom all hope is dead.
What was he to say to her? How console her? He did not venture to say a word, only stroked her hot face softly whilst he, too, became conscious of a certain feeling, that feeling that he had not always the strength to push aside.
They stood like that for a long time without saying a word, until he, pulling himself together, said in a voice that he tried to make calm and indifferent: "We shall have to return, we have got quite into the wilds. Come, take my arm. You are overtired, and when we—"
"Hush," she said, interrupting him, letting go of his arm quickly. "The same as before. Somebody is in trouble."
Now he heard it as well. They both listened. Was it an animal? Or a child's voice, the voice of quite a small child?
"My God!" Kate said nothing more, but making up her mind quickly, she turned to the right and ran down into a small hollow, without heeding that she stumbled several times among the bushes, through which it was impossible for her to force a passage.
Her quick ear had led her right. There was the child lying on the ground. It had no pillow, no covering, and was miserably wrapt up in a woman's old torn skirt. The little head with its dark hair lay in the heather that was covered with hoar-frost; the child was gazing fixedly into the luminous space between the heavens and the Venn with its large clear eyes.
There was no veil, nothing to protect it; no mother either—only the Venn.
Nevertheless they had deceived themselves. It was not crying, it was only talking to itself as quiet contented children generally do. It had stretched out its little hands, which were not wrapped up like the rest of its body, and had seized hold of some of the red berries and squashed them. Then its little fists had wandered up to the hungry mouth; there were drops of the juice from the berries on its baby lips.
"Quite alone?" Kate had sunk down on her knees, her hands trembled as they embraced the bundle. "Oh, the poor child. How sweet it is. Look, Paul. How has it come here? It will die of cold, of hunger. Do call out, Paul. The poor little mite. If its mother came now I would give her a piece of my mind it's disgraceful to let the helpless little mite lie like this. Call—loud—louder."
He called, he shouted: "Heigh! Hallo! Is nobody there?"
No voice answered, nobody came. The whole Venn was as quiet as though it were an extinct, long-forgotten world.
"Nobody is coming," whispered Kate quite softly, and there was an expression of fear and at the same time trembling exultation in her voice. "Its mother does not trouble—who knows where the woman is? I wonder if she's coming?" She looked round searchingly, turned her head in all directions, and then stooped over the child again with a sigh of contentment.
What unpardonable thoughtlessness—no, what unspeakable barbarity to abandon such a mite in that place. If they had come only a few hours—only an hour later. It might already have been bitten by a snake then, might even have been torn to pieces by a wolf.
Then her husband had to laugh, although the sight of her over-excitement had slightly annoyed him. "No, my child, there are no poisonous snakes here and no more wolves either, so you can be at rest about that. But when the mists begin to rise, they would have done for him."
"Oh!" Kate pressed the foundling to her bosom. She was sitting on her heels holding the child in her lap; she stroked its rosy cheeks, its little downy head, and showered caresses and flattering words on it, but the child continued to gaze into the luminous space with its large, dark, and yet so clear eyes. It did not smile, but it did not cry either; it took no notice whatever of the strangers.
"Do you think it has been left here intentionally?" asked Kate suddenly, opening her eyes wide. The blood flew to her head in a hot wave. "Oh then—then"—she drew a trembling breath and pressed the child to her bosom, as though she did not want to let it go again.
"It will all be cleared up somehow," said the man evasively. "The mother will be sure to come."
"Do you see her—do you see her?" she inquired almost anxiously.
"No." She repeated it in a relieved tone of voice, and then she laughed. After that her eyes and ears belonged entirely to the helpless little creature. "Where's baby—where is he then? Laugh a little, do. Look at me once with those big, staring eyes. Oh, you little darling, oh, you sweet child." She played with it and pressed kisses on its hands without noticing that they were dirty.
"What are we to do now?" said the man, perplexed.
"We can't leave it here. We shall have to take it with us, of course." There was something very energetic about the delicate-looking woman all at once. "Do you think I would forsake the child?" Her cheeks glowed, her eyes gleamed.
Paul Schlieben looked at his wife with a certain awe. How beautiful she was at that moment. Beautiful, healthy, happy. He had not seen her like that for a long time. Not since he had folded her in his arms as a happy bride. Her bosom rose and fell quickly with every trembling breath she took, and the child lay on her breast and the Venn myrtle bloomed at her feet.
A strange emotion came over him; but he turned away: what had that strange child to do with them? Still he admitted in a hesitating voice: "We certainly can't leave it here. But do you know what we can do? We'll take it with us to the inn. Give it to me, I'll carry it."
But she wanted to carry it herself, she only let him help her up. "There—there—come, my sweet little babe." She raised her foot cautiously to take the first step—then a shout tied her to the spot.
A rough voice had shouted it. And now a woman came up to them; the figure in the fluttering skirt was outlined big and clear against the rarefied ether that flowed around it.
Where had she come from so suddenly? From there, from behind the mound of earth that had been thrown up near the peat pit. She had been creeping on all fours plucking berries; a pail that was almost ft 11 hung on her arm, and in her right hand she carried the wooden measure and the large bone curry-comb with which she stripped off the berries.
That was the mother! Kate got a terrible fright; she turned pale.
Her husband was taken by surprise too. But then he gave a sigh of relief: that was decidedly the best way out of it. Of course, they might have known it at once, how should the child have come into the desolate Venn all alone? The mother had been looking for berries, and had put it down there meanwhile.
But the woman did not seem to take it kindly that they had looked so carefully after the child during her absence. The strong bony arms took it away from the lady somewhat roughly. The woman's eyes examined the strangers suspiciously.
"Is it your child?" asked Paul. He need not have asked the question; it had exactly the same dark eyes as the woman, only the child's were brighter, not dulled as yet by life's dust as the mother's were.
The woman made no answer. It was only when the man asked once more, "Are you the mother?" and put his hand into his pocket at the same time, that she found it worth while to give a curt nod:
"C'est l' mi'n."[A] Her face retained its gloomy expression; there was no movement of pride or joy.
[Footnote A: C'est le mien.]
Kate noticed it with a certain angry surprise. How indifferent the woman was. Was she not holding the child as though it were a useless burden? She was filled with envy, torturing envy, and at the same time with hot anger. That woman certainly did not deserve the child. She would have liked to have torn it out of her arms. How rough she looked, what coarse features she had, what a hard expression. She might really frighten anybody terribly with her black looks. But now—now her expression brightened; ah, she had seen the piece of money Paul had taken out of his purse.
Ugh, what a greedy expression she had now.
The fruit-picker stretched out her hand—there was a large shining silver coin—and when it was given to her, when she held it in her hand she drew a deep breath; her brown fingers closed round it tightly.
"Merci." A smile passed quickly across the sullen face in which the corners of the mouth drooped morosely, her blunted expression grew animated for a moment or two. And then she prepared to trudge away, the shapeless bundle containing the child on one arm, the heavy pail on the other.
They now saw for the first time how poor her skirt was; it had patches of all colours and sizes. Dried heather and fir-needles stuck to her matted and untidy plaits, as they hung out from the gaudily spotted cotton handkerchief; she had an old pair of men's hobnailed shoes on her feet. They did not know whether she was old or young; her stout body and hanging breasts disfigured her, but that her face had not been ugly once upon a time could still be seen. The little one resembled her.
"You've got a pretty child," said Paul. To please his wife he started a conversation again with this woman who was so inaccessible. "How old is the boy?"
The fruit-picker shook her head and looked past the questioner apathetically. There was no getting anything out of the woman, how terribly stupid she was. The man wanted to let her go, but Kate pressed up against him and whispered: "Ask her where she lives. Where she lives—do you hear?"
"Heigh, where do you live, my good woman?"
She shook her head once more without saying a word.
"Where do you come from, I mean? From what village?"
"Je ne co'pr nay,"[A] she said curtly. But then, becoming more approachable—perhaps she hoped for a second gift of money—she began in a whining, plaintive voice: "Ne n'ava nay de pan et tat d's e'fa'ts."[B]
"You're a Walloon, aren't you?"
"Ay[C]—Longfaye." And she raised her arm and pointed in a direction in which nothing was to be seen but the heavens and the Venn.
Longfaye was a very poor village in the Venn. Paul Schlieben knew that, and was about to put his hand into his pocket again, but Kate held him back, "No, not her—not the woman—you must hand it over to the vestryman for the child, the poor child."
[Footnote A: Je ne comprends pas.]
[Footnote B: Nous n'avons pas de pain et tant d'enfants.]
[Footnote C: Yes.]
She whispered softly and very quickly in her excitement.
It was impossible for the woman to have understood anything, but her black eyes flew as quick as lightning from the gentleman to the lady, and remained fixed on the fine lady from the town full of suspicion: if she would not give her anything, why should she let them ask her any more questions? What did they want with her? With the curtest of nods and a brusque "adieu" the Walloon turned away. She walked away across the marsh calmly but with long strides; she got on quickly, her figure became smaller and smaller, and soon the faded colour of her miserable skirt was no longer recognisable in the colourless Venn.
The sun had disappeared with the child; suddenly everything became grey.
Kate stood motionless looking in the direction of Longfaye. She stood until she shivered with cold, and then hung heavily on her husband's arm; she went along to the inn with dragging feet, as though she had grown tired all at once.
The mist began to conceal the bright midday. Cold damp air, which wets more than rain, made their clothes clammy. The stinging flies from the swamps flew in big swarms through the door and windows of the inn; a smouldering peat-fire was burning within, fanned to a bright flame by means of dry fir twigs, and the flies clung to the wall near the fire-place and to the ceiling—no, they would not die yet.
Autumn had come, sun and warmth had disappeared from the Venn, it was wise to flee now.
But outside, in the depths of the wilds above the highest point in the Venn, a lonely buzzard was moving round and round in a circle, uttering the piercing triumphant cry of a wild bird. He was happy there in summer as in winter. He did not want to leave.
The vestryman of the small village in the Venn felt somewhat surprised and embarrassed when such a fine lady and gentleman drove up to his house and wished to speak to him. He went out to them, walking through the filthy water in his yard that splashed up to his knees. He did not know where he should take them to, as the little pigs and the calf were in the house and the old sow was wallowing in front of the door.
So they walked up and down the quiet village street from which the few farms lay somewhat back, whilst the carriage jolted slowly along in the deep ruts behind them.
Kate was pale, you could see from her eyes that she had only had very little sleep. But she was smiling, and a happy excitement full of expectation was written on her features, spoke in her gait; she was always a little ahead of the others.
Her husband's face was very grave. Was he not committing a great imprudence, acting in an extremely hasty manner for the sake of his wife? If it did not turn out all right?
They had had a bad night. He had brought Kate home from the inn the day before in a strangely silent and absent-minded mood. She had eaten nothing, and, feigning extreme fatigue, had gone early to bed. But when he retired to rest a few hours later he found her still awake. She was sitting up in bed with her beautiful hair hanging down her back in two long plaits, which gave her quite a youthful appearance. Her bewildered eyes gazed at him full of a strange longing, and then she threw both arms round his neck and drew his head down to her.
Her manner had been so strange, so gentle and yet so impetuous, that he asked her anxiously whether there was anything the matter with her. But she had only shaken her head and held him close in a silent embrace.
At last he thought she had fallen asleep—and she was asleep, but only for quite a short time. Then she woke again with a loud cry. She had dreamt, dreamt so vividly—oh, if he knew what she had been dreaming. Dreaming—dreaming—she sighed and tossed about, and then laughed softly to herself.
He noticed that she had something on her mind, which she would like to tell him but which she had hardly the courage to say. So he asked her.
Then she had confessed it to him, hesitatingly, shyly, and yet with so much passion that it terrified him. It was the child of which she had been thinking the whole time, of which she always must think—oh, if only she had it. She would have it, must have it. The woman had so many other children, and she—she had none. And she would be so happy with it, so unspeakably happy.
She had become more and more agitated in the darkness of the night, uninterrupted by a single word from him, by any movement—he had lain quite quietly, almost as though the surprise had paralysed him, although it could not really be called a surprise any more. What was her whole life? she had said. A constant longing. All the love he showered on her could not replace the one thing: a child, a child.
"My dear, good husband, don't refuse it. Make me happy. No other mother on earth will be so happy—my darling husband, give me the child." Her tears were falling, her arms clasped him, her kisses rained down on his face.
"But why just that child? And why decide so quickly? It's no trifle—we must think it over very carefully first."
He had made objections, excuses, but she had pertinent answers ready for all. What was to be thought over very carefully? They would not come to any other result. And how could he think for a moment that the woman would perhaps not give them the child? If she did not love it, she would be glad to give it, and if she did love it, then all the more reason for her to be glad to give it, and to thank God that she knew it was so well taken care of.
"But the father, the father. Who knows whether he will agree to it?"
"Oh, the father. If the mother gives it, the father is sure to agree. One bread-eater less is always a good thing for such poor people. The poor child, perhaps it will die for want of food, and it would be so well"—she broke off—"isn't it like a dispensation of Providence that just we should come to the Venn, that just we should find it?"
He felt that she was persuading him, and he strove against it in his heart. No, if she allowed herself to be carried away by her feelings in such a manner—she was only a woman—then he, as a man, must subordinate his feelings to common sense.
And he enumerated all the difficulties to her again and again, and finally said to her: "You can't guess what troubles you may be preparing for yourself. If the affection you now think you feel for the child should not last? If he is not congenial to you when he grows older? Bear in mind, he is and will always be the child you have adopted."
But then she had almost flown into a passion. "How can you say such things? Do you think I am narrow-minded? Whether it is my own child or a child I have adopted is quite immaterial, as it becomes mine through its training. I will train it in my own way. That it is of your own flesh and blood has nothing to do with it. Am I only to love a child because I have borne it? Oh no. I love the child because—because it is so small, so innocent, because it must be so extremely sweet when such a helpless little creature stretches out its arms to you." And she spread out her arms and then folded them across her breast, as though she was already holding a child to her heart. "You're a man, you do not understand it. But you are so anxious to make me happy make me happy now. Dear, darling husband, you will very soon forget that it is not our own child, you will soon not remember it any more. It will say 'Father,' 'Mother' to us—and we will be its father and mother."
If she were right! He was silent, thrilled by a strange emotion. And why should she not be right? A child that one trains according to one's own method from its first year, that is removed entirely from the surroundings in which it was born, that does not know but what it is the child of its present parents, that learns to think with their thoughts and feel with their feelings, cannot have anything strange about it any more. It will become part of oneself, will be as dear, as beloved as though one had begotten it oneself.
Pictures arose before his mind's eye which he no longer expected to see, no longer ventured to hope for. He saw his smiling wife with a smiling child on her lap; he saw himself smile, and felt a pride he had never known when he heard its soft childish voice lisp: "Fa-ther." Yes, Kate was right, all the other things that go by the name of happiness are nothing compared to this happiness. Only a father, a mother, knows what joy is.
He kissed his wife, and this kiss already meant half consent; she felt that.
"Let us drive there to-morrow, the first thing to-morrow morning," she implored, in a tone of suppressed rapture.
He endeavoured to remain calm: after they had maturely considered the matter, they would first have to talk it over with their lawyer in Berlin, and other intimate friends.
Then she lost her temper. She pouted, and then she laughed at him: was this a business matter? What had the lawyer and other people to do with such a very important, quite personal and private matter? Nobody was to be asked about it, nobody was to interfere with it. Not a single person must suspect where the child came from or who were its parents. They, he and she, were its parents, they were responsible for it, its life had begun when they took it, and they vouched for its future. This child was their work, their work entirely.
"We'll fetch it the first thing to-morrow. The sooner it gets out of that dirt and misery the better—don't you agree with me, Paul?" She did not give him a chance of saying anything more, she overwhelmed him with plans and proposals, in her sparkling vivacity; and her exuberant spirits overcame his scruples.
One can have too many scruples, be too cautious, and thus embitter every pleasure in life, he said to himself. There was surely nothing extraordinary in what they were doing? They only picked up something that had been laid at their feet; in that way they were obeying a hint given them by Fate. And there were really no difficulties in connection with it. If they did not betray it themselves nobody would find out about the child's antecedents, and there would not be any questions asked in the village either as to what had become of it. It was a nameless, homeless little creature they were going to take away with them, of which they would make what they liked. Later on when the little one was old enough they would formally adopt it, and thus confirm also in writing what their hearts had already approved of long ago. Now the only thing left to do was to get hold of the vestryman at Longfaye, and make arrangements with the parents for the surrender of the child with his assistance.
When Paul Schlieben had come to this decision, he was troubled with the same restlessness as his wife. Oh, if only it were morning, she groaned. If anybody should steal a march on them now, if the child should no longer be there next morning? She tossed about in her impatience and fear. But her husband also turned from side to side without sleeping. How could they know whether the child was healthy? For a moment he weighed anxiously in his mind whether it would not be advisable to confide in the doctor at the baths at Spa—he might drive with them and examine the child first of all—but then he rejected the thought again. The child looked so strong. He recalled its sturdy fists, the clear look in its bright eyes—it had lain on the bare ground in the cold and wind without any protection—it must have a strong constitution. They need not trouble about that.
It was very early in the morning when husband and wife rose—weary as though all their limbs were bruised, but driven on by a kind of joyful determination.
Kate ran about the room at the hotel, so busy, so happy and excited, as though she were expecting a dear guest. She felt so sure they would bring the child back with them straightway. At all events she would commence packing the trunks, for when they had got it they would want to get home, home as quickly as possible. "The hotel is no place for such a little darling. It must have its nursery, a bright room with flowered curtains—but dark ones besides to draw in front of the windows so as to subdue the light when it goes to sleep—otherwise everything must be bright, light, airy. And there must be a baby's chest-of-drawers there with all the many bottles and basins, and its little bath, its bed with the white muslin curtains behind which you can see it lying with red cheeks, its little fist near its head, slumbering soundly."
She was so young-looking, so lovely in her joyful expectation, that her husband was charmed with her. Did not the sunshine seem to be coming now for which he had been waiting so long in vain? It preceded the child, fell on its path, making it clear and bright.
Both husband and wife were full of excitement as they drove to Longfaye. They had taken a comfortable landau that could be closed that day, instead of the light carriage for two in which they generally made their excursions. It might be too cold for the child on the way back. Rugs and cloaks and shawls were packed in it, quite a large choice.
Paul Schlieben had taken his papers with him. They would hardly be likely to want any proof of his identity, but he stuck them into his pocket as a precaution, so as to provide against any delay that might be caused by their absence. He had been told that the vestryman was quite a sensible man, so everything would be settled smoothly.
As the rowan trees on both sides of the road bowed their tops under their autumn load of red berries, so the heads of both husband and wife were bowed under a flood of thoughts full of promise. The trees flew quickly past the carriage as it rolled along, and so did their lives' different stages past their agitated minds. Fifteen years of married life—long years when one is expecting something first with confidence, then with patience, then with faint-heartedness, then with longing, with a longing that is kept more and more secret as the years go by, and that becomes more and more burning on account of the secrecy. Now the fulfilment was at hand—a fulfilment certainly different from what husbands and wives who love each other picture to themselves, but still a fulfilment.
That old sentence in the Bible came into the woman's mind and would not be banished: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son. Oh, this child from a strange, from an unknown land, from a land that had neither fields nor fruits, and was not blessed with rich harvests, this child was a gift from God, given by His goodness. She bowed her head full of gratitude, as though she had received a blessing.
And the man pressed his wife's hand gently, and she returned the pressure. They remained sitting hand in hand. His glance sought hers and she blushed. She loved him again as in the first year of her marriage—no, she loved him much more now, for now, now he gave her the happiness of her life, the child.
Her eyes that were full of bliss swept over the poor Venn district, which looked brown and desolate, and which was still a fairyland full of the most glorious wonders.
"Didn't I know it?" she murmured triumphantly, although trembling with an agitation that was almost superstitious. "I felt it—here—here."
She could hardly wait until they reached the village hi the Venn, oh, how far away from the world it lay, so quite forgotten. And so poor. But the poverty did not terrify her, nor the dirt—the result of the poverty; she was going to take the child away with her now, to take him where there was culture and prosperity, and he would never know that he had lain on the bare ground instead of in a soft bed. She thought of Moses. As he had been found in the bulrushes on the banks of the Nile, so she had found him on the grass in the Venn—would he become a great man like him? Desires, prayers, hopes, and a hundred feelings she had not known before agitated her mind.
Paul Schlieben had some difficulty in making the vestryman understand him. It was not because the man was a Walloon who hardly understood German, for Nikolas Rocherath of "Good Hope"—his house having received that name because it could be seen a good distance off in the Venn, it being the largest in the village—was a German, but because he could not understand what the gentleman meant.
What did he want with Lisa Solheid's Jean-Pierre? Adopt him? He looked quite puzzled at first, and then he got offended. No, even if he was nothing but a simple peasant, he would not let the gentleman make a fool of him.
It was only by degrees that Schlieben could convince him that his intentions were serious. But the old man still continued to rub his stubbly chin doubtfully and cast suspicious glances at the lady and gentleman, who had broken in on his solitude so unexpectedly. It was only when Kate, wearied and tortured by the long explanation, seized hold of his arm impatiently, and looking into his face cried impetuously, almost angrily, "For goodness' sake do understand. We have no child, but we want a child—now do you understand it?"—that he understood.
No child—oh dear! No child! Then people do not know what they are living for. Now he nodded comprehendingly, and, casting a compassionate look at the lady who was so rich, so finely dressed and still had no children, he became much more approachable. So they were so pleased with Lisa Solheid's Jean-Pierre that they wanted to take him to Berlin with them? How lucky the boy was. Lisa would not be able to believe it. But nobody would begrudge her it. Nobody in Longfaye was as poor as she; many a day she did not know how to get sufficient food for herself and her five. Formerly, whilst her husband was alive——
What, her husband was not alive? She was a widow? Paul Schlieben interrupted the vestryman, and drew a long breath as though of relief. Although he had never spoken of it, he had always had a secret fear of the father: if he turned out to be a drunkard or a ne'er-do-well? A load fell from his mind now—he was dead, he could not do any more harm. Or had he died of an illness after all, of a wasting disease that is handed down to children and children's children? He had been told that the mists on the Venn and the sudden changes in the temperature may easily be injurious to the lungs and throat—added to that hard work and bad food—surely the young man had not died of consumption? He asked the question anxiously.
But Nikolas Rocherath laughed. No, Michel Solheid had never known a day's illness all his life, and had not died of any illness. He had worked at the machine factory at Verviers, covered with black soot and naked to the waist. Cold and heat had had no effect on him. And he used to come over from Verviers every Saturday and spend Sunday with his family. And it had been the Saturday before the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul somewhat over a year ago now, and Michel had bought his wife a side of bacon and one or two pounds of coffee for the money he had earned for overtime.
"You must know, sir, everything is much too dear for us here, and it is much cheaper on the other side of the frontier," said the old man in a troubled voice; then, raising his fist slowly, he shook it at the Venn that lay there so peaceful and remote from the world. "But they were soon on his tracks. They came after him from the Baraque—the accursed douaniers. Three, four of them. Now you must know that Michel could run as well as any of them. If he had thrown his parcel behind a bush and run, they would never have caught him. But no, he would not, he would have felt ashamed of himself if he had done so. So in order not to let them know where he was going, he ran to the left through the Walloon Venn in the direction of Hill instead of to the right. Then on through Clefay and Neckel,[A] and so on in all directions, and in this manner he got away from the neighbourhood he knew as well as he knew his own pocket. They were close at his heels above the Pannensterz. And they ran after him calling out 'Stop!'
[Footnote A: Wooded districts in the High Venn.]
"Look you, sir, if he had run into the Great Haard then and hidden in the thicket there, they would never have found him without a dog. But he lost his head, and ran out of the bushes straight across the Venn.
"'Halt!—Stop!'—and a third time 'Halt!' But he bounded along like a stag. Then one of them pulled his trigger and—Jesus Christ have mercy upon us, now and at the hour of our death!"—the vestryman devoutly made the sign of the cross and then wiped his nose with the back of his hand—"the shot pierced the side of bacon and went into his back, in from behind, out at the front. Then Solheid turned a somersault. It was a shame. Such a fine fellow, for a side of bacon.
"He still lived for over an hour. He told them that he was Solheid from Longfaye, and that they should fetch his wife.
"I was just cutting my hedge that day, when somebody came running up. And I started off with Lisa, who was six months gone with Jean-Pierre at the time. But when we came there it was already too late.
"They had left him lying not far from the large cross. They had wanted to carry him to a house at Ruitzhof, but he had said 'Leave me. I'll die here.' And he gazed at the sun.
"Sir, it was as large and red in the sky that day—as large—as it will be on the Day of Judgment. Sir, he was bathed in sweat and blood—they had chased him for hours—but he still enjoyed gazing at the sun.
"Sir, the fellow who had shot him was almost out of his mind; he held him on his knees and wept. Sir, no,"—the vestryman gave himself a shake and his gestures expressed the aversion he felt—"I would not like to be a douanier!"
The old man's voice had grown deeper and hoarser—it was a sign of the sympathy he felt—now it got its former even-tempered ring again. "If it's agreeable to you, ma'am, we'll go now."
"Oh, the child, the poor child," whispered Kate, quite shaken.
"Do you think the widow will part with her youngest child?" asked Paul Schlieben, seized with a sudden fear. This child that had been born after its father's death—was it possible?
"Oh!" the old man rocked his head to and fro and chuckled. "If you give a good sum for it. She has enough of them."
Nikolas Rocherath was quite the peasant again now; it was no longer the same man who had spoken of the sun in the Venn and Solheid's death. The point now was to get as much out of these people as possible, to fleece a stranger and a townsman into the bargain to the best of his ability.
"Hundred thalers would not be too much to ask," he said, blinking sideways at the gentleman's grave face. What a lot of money he must have, why, not a muscle of his face had moved.
The old peasant had been used to haggling all his life when trading in cattle, now he gazed at the strange gentleman full of admiration for such wealth. He led the way to Solheid's cottage with alacrity.
Like all the houses in the village, the Solheids' cottage stood quite alone behind a hedge that reached as high as the gable. But the hedge, which was to protect it against the storms that raged in the Venn and the heavy snowdrifts, was not thick any longer; you could see that there was no man's hand there to take care of it. The hornbeams had shot up irregularly; dead branches lashed by the wind from the Venn stretched themselves in the air like accusing fingers.
Ugh, it must be icy cold there in the winter. Kate involuntarily drew her cloak of soft cloth lined with silk more tightly round her. And it must be doubly dark there on dark days. Hardly any light found its way through the tiny windows owing to the protecting hedge, and the roof hung low over the entrance. There were no steps, you walked straight into the room.
The vestryman rattled the iron knocker on the door, which had once been painted green but had no colour left now. The sound reverberated through the building, but the door did not open when they tried it. The woman was probably among the berries, and the children with her. The hungry screams of the youngest one was all that was heard inside the locked cottage.
The poor child—oh, she had left it alone again. Kate trembled with excitement, its screams sounded to her like a call for help.
The vestryman sat down calmly on the chopping-block in front of the door and drew his pipe out of the pocket of his blue linen smock, which he had hastily drawn over his working coat in honour of the lady and the gentleman. Now they would have to wait.
The husband and wife looked at each other much disappointed. Wait? Kate had refused the seat on the chopping-block, which the old man had offered her with a certain gallantry. She could not rest, she walked restlessly up and down in front of the little window, trying in vain to look through the dark pane.
The child inside screamed more and more loudly. Old Rocherath laughed: what a roar that was to be sure, Jean-Pierre had powerful lungs.
Kate could not listen to the screams any longer, they tortured her both bodily and mentally. Oh, how they made her ears tingle. She covered them with her hands. And her heart trembled with compassion and anger: how could its mother remain away so long?
Her brow was wet with perspiration. She stared at the Venn, at the bare, treeless, tortuous path with burning impatient eyes. At last she saw some figures—at last!—and yet her breath stopped all at once, her heart ceased to beat and then suddenly went hammering on at a furious pace as if mad. There came the child's mother!
Lisa Solheid was carrying a bundle of fagots on her back, which was fastened round her shoulders with a rope The load was so heavy that it quite weighed her down, bending her head forward. Three children—their small feet in clumsy shoes with big nails in them—stamped along in front of their mother, whilst a fourth was clinging to her skirt. It had also been looking for cranberries, and its little hands were coloured red like those of its older sister and brothers, who were carrying pails, measure and comb.
Pretty children, all four of them. They had the same dark eyes as little Jean-Pierre, and they stared with them half boldly, half timidly at the strange lady who was smiling at them.
The woman did not recognise the lady and gentleman again who had given her a present in the Venn the day before—or did she only pretend not to?
The rope which had kept the bundle together had cut deep into her shoulders and bosom, now she undid it and threw off the burden with a powerful jerk; and then, seizing hold of the axe lying near the chopping-block, she began to chop up a couple of big branches with powerful strokes.
"Hallo, Lisa," said the vestryman, "when you have chopped sufficient wood to cook the cranberries, just wait a bit."
She looked up at him for a moment. The strange lady and gentleman had gone a little aside—without previous arrangement. Let the vestryman tell her first. It was not so simple a matter as they had imagined. She was not very approachable.
Not a feature changed in the woman's reserved face; she went on with her work in silence, her lips compressed. The wood was split up by means of her powerful blows, and the pieces flew around her. Was she listening at all to what the man was saying to her?
Yes—the spectators exchanged a hasty glance—and now she was answering too in a more lively manner than they would have supposed, judging from her sullen appearance.
Lisa Solheid raised her arm and pointed to the cottage in which the little one was still screaming. Her speech—an almost barbaric dialect—sounded rough, they understood nothing of it except a French word here and there. The vestryman spoke Walloon too. Both of them became excited, raised their voices and spoke to each other in a loud voice; it sounded almost like quarrelling.
They did not seem to agree. Kate listened in suppressed terror. Would she give it? Would he get it from her?
She pulled her husband's sleeve when nobody was looking. "Offer more, give her some more, a hundred thalers is much too little." And he must also promise the peasant something for his trouble. A hundred, two hundred, three hundred, a hundred times a hundred would not be too much. Oh, how the poor child was screaming. She could hardly bear to stand outside the door doing nothing any longer.
Little Jean-Pierre's sister and brothers—a beautiful girl with untidy hair and three younger brothers—stood with their fingers in their mouths, their dirty noses unwiped, and did not move from the spot.
Their mother spoke to them angrily, "Off with you!" And they darted off, one almost tumbling over another. They scraped the key out of the little hole under the door, and the biggest of them thrust it into the rusty lock, and, standing on her toes, turned it with all the strength of her small hands.
Then the woman turned to the strange lady and gentleman; she made a gesture of invitation with her thin right hand: "Entrez."
They stepped in. It was so low inside that Paul Schlieben had to bend his head so as not to knock against the beams in the ceiling, and so dark that it took a considerable time before they could distinguish anything at all. It could not have been poorer anywhere—one single room in all. The hearth was formed of unhewn stones roughly put together, above it hung the kettle in an iron chain that was made fast to the blackened beam; the smoke from the smouldering peat ascended into the wide sooty chimney. A couple of earthenware plates in the plate-rack—cracked but with gay-coloured flowers on them—a couple of dented pewter vessels, a milk-pail, a wooden tub, a long bench behind the table, on the table half a loaf of bread and a knife, a few clothes on some nails, the double bed built half into the wall, in which the widow no doubt slept with the children now, and little Jean-Pierre's clumsy wooden cradle in front of it—that was all.
Really all? Kate looked round, shivering a little in the cold dark room that was as damp as a cellar. Oh, how poor and comfortless. There were no ornaments, nothing to decorate it. Oh yes, there was a glaringly gaudy picture of the Virgin Mary—a coarse colour-print on thin paper—a vessel for holy water made of white china beneath it, and there on the other wall close to the window so that the sparse light fell on it the picture of a soldier. A framed and glazed picture in three divisions; the same foot-soldier taken three times. To the left, shouldering his arms, on guard before the black and white sentry-box—to the right, ready to march with knapsack and cooking utensils strapped on his back, bread-bag and field-flask at his side, gun at his feet—in the centre, in full dress uniform as a lance-corporal, with his hand to his helmet saluting.
That was no doubt the man, Michel Solheid as a soldier. Kate cast a timid glance at the picture—that man had been shot in the Venn whilst smuggling. How terrible! She heard the old man tell the story once more, saw the bleeding man lying in the heather, and the horror of his tragic end made her shudder. Her glance fell on the picture again and again, the usual picture of a soldier which told nothing whatever in its stereotyped inanity, and then on little Jean-Pierre's cradle. Did he resemble his father much?
Paul Schlieben had expected his wife to speak—she would of course know best what to say to the other woman—but she was silent. And the vestryman did not say anything either; as he had started the negotiations he considered it polite to let the gentleman speak now. And Lisa Solheid was also silent. All she did was to drive away the children, who wanted to fall upon the hard bread on the table with ravenous appetites, with a silent gesture. Then she stood quietly beside the cradle, her right hand, which still held the axe with which she had cut the wood, hanging loosely by her side. Her face was gloomy, forbidding, and still a struggle was reflected on it.
Paul Schlieben cleared his throat. He would have preferred some other person to have settled the matter for him, but, as this other person was not there and the vestryman only looked at him expectantly, he was compelled to speak. With an affability which might have been taken for condescension but which was nothing but embarrassment he said: "Frau Solheid, the vestryman will have told you what has brought us to you—do you understand me, my good woman?"
"It's our intention to take your youngest child away with us"—he hesitated, for she had made a movement as though she wanted to deny it—"as our own, to adopt it. Do you understand?"
She did not answer, but he continued with as much haste as if she had said yes. "We will treat it as if it really were our own. We shall be able to do more for it than you would, of course, and we——"
"Oh, and we'll love it so," his wife broke in.
The black-eyed woman turned her head slowly to the side where the fair-haired lady was standing. It was a peculiar look with which she scanned the stranger, who had now approached the cradle. Was it a scrutinising look or a forbidding one? A friendly or unfriendly one?
Kate looked at the child with longing eyes. It was no longer crying, it even smiled, and now—now it stretched out its little arms. Oh, it was already so intelligent, it was looking at her, it noticed already that she was fond of it. It tried to get up—oh, it wanted to go to her, to her!
Her face flushed with joy. She had already stretched out her hands to take the child, when its mother pushed herself in front of the cradle like a wall.
"Neni,"[A] she said in Walloon, in a hard voice. She raised her empty left hand to ward Kate off. And then she made the sign of the cross on the child's forehead and then on its breast.
[Footnote A: Non.]
But why, why would she not give it all at once? Kate trembled with dismay. She cast an imploring look at her husband, as much as to say: "Help me. I must have the child."
And then her husband said what he wanted to say before when his wife had cut him short: "We will secure your child's future. Do you know what that means, my good woman? It will never have to trouble about its daily bread—never have to hunger. Never have to work to prolong its life—only work for the pleasure of working. Do you understand?"
Work—for the pleasure of working? The woman shook her head, she did not understand him. But then the words came into her mind: never hunger!—and a light shone in her dull eyes. Never hunger—ah, the woman understood that; and still she shook her head again: "Neni!"
She pointed to herself and the other children, and then to the great Venn outside with a comprehensive gesture:
"Nos avans tortos faim."[A] She shrugged her shoulders with the equanimity of one who is accustomed to it, and it even looked as though she wanted to smile; the corners of her sullen mouth did not droop quite so much, her lips that were generally tightly closed showed her strong healthy teeth.
The vestryman stepped in now: "'Pon my word, Lisa, to hunger is surely no pleasure. Good heavens, how can you be so foolish! The child will be taken from hell to heaven. Remember what I've told you, the lady and gentleman are rich, very rich, and they are mad on the child—quick, give it to them, you still have four."
Still four! She nodded reflectively, but then she threw her head back, and a look—now it was plain, something like hatred flickered in it—flew to the others standing there so rich, so fine, with rings on their ringers, and at whom her Jean-Pierre was peeping. "Neni!" She repeated it once more and still more curtly and more obstinately than before.
But the vestryman was tenacious, he knew the people he had to deal with. "You must think it over," he said persuasively. "And they'll give you a good sum, I tell you—won't you?" he asked, turning to the gentleman. "Haven't you said you weren't particular to a coin or two in the case of such a poor woman?"
"No, certainly not," assured Paul. And Kate was too precipitate again. "It does not matter at all to us—we will gladly give what she asks—oh, the dear child!"
"Dju n' vous nin,"[B] muttered the woman.
[Footnote A: Nous avons tous faim.]
[Footnote B: Je ne veux pas.]
"You won't? Oh, nonsense." The old peasant almost laughed at her. "You are just like my Mayflower when she won't stand, and kicks the milk-pail with her hind foot. Don't offend the people. What advantage will it be to you if they grow impatient and go away? None at all. Then you will have five who call out for bread, and the winter is near at hand. Do you want to have such a winter as you had last year? Didn't Jean-Pierre almost die of cold? The four others are already older, it's easier to rear them. And you can get a cow for yourself—just think of that, a cow. And you could have a better roof put on the house, which won't let the rain and the snow come through, and could have enough cranberries as well. It would certainly be a good stroke of business, Lisa."
Kate wanted to add something more—oh, what a lot of good she would do the woman, if she would only give the child to her!—but the old man cleared his throat and winked at her covertly to warn her that she was to be silent.
"Kubin m'e dinroz—ve?"[A] inquired the woman all at once.
[Footnote A: Combien me donnerez-vous donc?]
She had been standing undecided for a long time with her head bowed, and a deep silence had reigned around her. The strange lady and gentleman had not moved, nor had the vestryman; no wind had whistled in the chimney, no fire crackled. A silent expectation weighed on them all. Now she raised her head, and her gloomy eyes glanced at the miserable room, the small quantity of bread on the table and then at the hungry four, as though examining everything. She no longer looked at the fifth child. She had grown pale, the deep sunburn on her face had turned a greyish colour.
"What's he going to give you? Well, what will you give her?" said the peasant encouragingly. "I think you'll see that two hundred is too little. The woman is very much attached to the child, it will not be easy for her to give it up." He watched Paul Schlieben out of the corner of his eye, and called out as they call out at an auction: "Two hundred, two hundred and fifty, three hundred. 'Pon my word, it isn't too much. Jean-Pierre is a fine boy—just look at his fists. And his thighs. A splendid fellow." He noticed the longing expression in Kate's eyes—"Three hundred thalers is not worth talking about for the boy, is it, ma'am?"
Kate had tears in her eyes and was very pale. The air in the cottage oppressed her, it was all very repugnant to her—let them only get away quickly from there. But not without the child. "Four hundred—five hundred," she jerked out, and she gazed imploringly at her husband as though to say: "Do settle it quickly."
"Five hundred, willingly." Paul Schlieben drew out his pocket-book.
The peasant craned his neck forward the better to see. His eyes were quite stiff in his head, he had never seen anybody pay so willingly before. The children, too, stared with wide-open eyes.
The woman cast a hasty glance at the notes the gentleman spread on the table near the bread; but the covetous light that flashed in her eyes disappeared suddenly again. "Neni," she said sullenly.
"Offer her some more—more," whispered the old man.
And Schlieben laid another couple of notes on the table beside the others; his fingers trembled a little as he did it, the whole thing was so unspeakably repugnant to him. He had never thought of haggling; they should have what they wanted, only let them get done with it.
Nikolas Rocherath could not contain himself any longer at the sight of such generosity—so much money on the table, and that woman could still hesitate? He rushed up to her and shook her by the shoulders: "Are you quite mad? Six hundred thalers on the table and you don't take them? What man here can say he has six hundred thalers in cash? What money, what a sum of money!" His emaciated face, which had grown very haggard from years of toil and a life lived in wind and storm and which was as sharply outlined as though cut out of hard wood, twitched. His fingers moved convulsively: how was it possible that anybody could still hesitate?
The axe which the woman still held fell out of her hand with a loud noise. Without raising her head, without looking at the table or at the cradle she said in a loud voice—but there was no ring in the voice: "Allons bon. Djhan-Pire est da vosse."[A]
[Footnote A: Eh bien. Jean-Pierre est a vous.]
And she turned away, walked to the hearth with a heavy tread and raked up the smouldering peat.
What indifference! This woman certainly did not deserve to be a mother. Kate's gentle eyes began to blaze. Schlieben was angry too; no, they need not have any scruples about taking the child away from there. He was filled with disgust.
The woman behaved now as though the whole affair did not concern her any longer. She busied herself at the hearth whilst the vestryman counted the notes—licking his fingers repeatedly and examining both sides of each one—and then put them carefully into the envelope which the gentleman had given him.
"There they are, Lisa, put them into your pocket."
She tore them out of his hand with a violent gesture, and, lifting up her dress to a good height, she slipped them into her miserable ragged petticoat.
The last thing had still to be settled. Even if Paul Schlieben felt certain that nobody there would inquire about the child any more, the formalities had to be observed. Loosening his pencil from his watch-chain—for where was ink to come from there?—he drew up the mother's deed of surrender on a leaf from his pocketbook. The vestryman signed it as witness. Then the woman put her three crosses below; she had learnt to write once, but had forgotten it again.
"There!" Paul Schlieben rose from the hard bench on which he had sat whilst writing with a sigh of relief. Thank goodness, now everything was settled, now the vestryman had only to procure him the birth and baptismal certificates and send them to him. "Here—this is my address. And here—this is for any outlay." He covertly pressed a couple of gold coins into the old man's hand, who smiled when he felt them there.
Well, now they would take the boy with them at once? he supposed.
Kate, who had been standing motionless staring at the mother with big eyes as though she could not understand what she saw, woke up. Of course they would take the child with them at once, she would not leave it a single hour longer there. And she took it quickly out of the cradle, pressed it caressingly to her bosom and wrapped it up in the warm wide cloak she was wearing. Now it was her child that she had fought such a hard battle for, had snatched from thousands of dangers, her darling, her sweet little one.
Little Jean-Pierre's sister and brothers stood there in silence with eyes wide open. Had they understood that their brother was going away, going for ever? No, they could not have understood it, otherwise they would have shown how grieved they were. Their big eyes were only interested in the bread on the table.
Paul Schlieben pitied the little ones greatly—they would remain there in their wretchedness, their hunger, their poverty. He stuck a present into the hands of all four. None of the four thanked him for it, but their small fingers clasped the money tightly.
The woman did not thank him either. When the strange lady took Jean-Pierre out of the cradle—she had seen it without looking in that direction—she had started. But now she stood motionless near the empty cradle, on the spot where the axe had fallen out of her right hand before with a loud noise, looking on in silence whilst Jean-Pierre was being wrapped up in the soft cloak. She had nothing to give him.
Paul Schlieben had feared there would be a scene at the very last in spite of the mother's indifference—she surely could not remain so totally void of feeling, when they carried her youngest child away with them?—but the woman remained calm. She stood there motionless, her left hand pressed against the place in her skirt where she felt the pocket. Did not that money in her pocket—Paul felt very disturbed—give the lie to all the traditions about a mother's love? And still—the woman was so demoralised by her great poverty, half brutalised in the hard struggle for her daily bread, that even the feeling she had for the child she had borne had vanished. Oh, what a different mother Kate would be to the child now. And he pushed his wife, who had the little one in her arms, towards the door, in his tender anxiety for her.
Let them only get away, it was not a nice place to be in.
They hastened away. Kate turned her head once more when she reached the threshold. She would have to cast a glance at the woman who remained behind so stiff and silent. Even if she were incomprehensible to her, a compassionate glance was her due.
Then ... a short cry, but loud, penetrating, terrible in its brevity, a cry that went through nerve and bone. One single inarticulate cry that agony and hatred had wrung from her.
The woman had stooped down. She had snatched up the axe with which she had chopped the wood. She raised her arm as though to throw something—the sharp edge flashed past the lady's head as she hurried away, and buried itself in the door-post with a crash.
They had hastened away with the child as though they were running away. They had bundled it into the carriage—quick, quick—the coachman had whipped up the horses, the wheels had turned round with a creaking noise. The village in the Venn remained behind them, buried like a bad dream one wants to forget.
A dull grey lay over the Venn. The sun, which had been shining in the morning, had quite disappeared, as though not a single beam had ever been seen there. The Venn mist, which rises so suddenly, was there covering everything. There was a wall now where there had been a wide outlook before. A wall not of stone and not of bricks, but much stronger. It did not crack, it did not burst, it did not totter, it did not give way before the hammer wielded by the strongest hand. It shaped itself out of the morasses, powerful and impenetrable, and stretched from the moor up to the clouds—or was it the clouds that had lowered themselves to the earth?
The heavens and the Venn, both alike. Nothing but grey, a tough, damp, cold, liquid and still firm, unfathomable, mysterious, awful grey. A grey from which those who lose themselves on the moor never find their way out. The mist is too tenacious. It has arms that grip, that embrace so tightly, that one can neither see forward nor backward any more, neither to the left nor to the right, that the cry that wants to escape from a throat that is well-nigh choked with terror is drowned, and that the eye becomes blind to every road, every footprint.
The driver cursed and beat his horses. There was nothing more to be seen of the road, nothing whatever, no ditch at the side of it, no telegraph poles, no small rowan trees. The broad road that had been made with such difficulty had disappeared in the grey that enfolded the Venn. It was fortunate that the horses had not lost their way as yet. They followed their noses, shook their long tails, neighed shrilly and trotted courageously into the sea of mist.
Kate shuddered as she wrapped herself and the child up more tightly; they required all the warm covering now which they had taken with them so providently. Her husband packed her up still more securely, and then laid his arm round her as though to protect her. It was a terrible journey.
They had had the carriage closed, but the cold grey forced its way in notwithstanding. It penetrated through all the crevices, through the window-panes, filled the space inside so that their faces swam in the damp twilight like pale spots, and laid itself heavily, obstructively on their breath.