"So you have done since with many other girls—ay, and laughed at them."
"And then the others came and wanted to take me away, out of her sight, because I was so cruel."
"Ay, just so. If only someone had done the same thing afterwards, with the rest...."
"But Maya held my hand and would not let them. And even when she was dying I had to stay there, and with her last words she hoped that Olof would grow up and be a fine strong fellow, and a good man."
He relapsed into thought.
"And now ... here you are, a fine strong fellow, and...." The voice seemed urging him to go on.
"Why did my sister die? Oh, if only she were alive now!"
"Who can say—perhaps it is better for her as it is."
"If she were alive now, she would be in her best years. And she could live with me, we two together, and never caring about anyone else. Keep house together—and she should be my friend and sister—and all else! I know just what she would look like. Tall and slender, with fair hair, light as the flax at home, and all curling down over her shoulders. And she would carry her head high—not vain and proud, but noble and stately. And her eyes all fire and mischief. Deep eyes, with a reflection of strange worlds, and none could face them with so much as a thought of deceit. Like mother's eyes—only with all, all the fire of youth—almost like Kylli...."
"So ho!" laughed the gloom. "So that's what your sister's to be like.... Well, go on!"
"And her nature, too, would be strange. Independent, choosing her own way—such a nature as old folks say is no good thing for a lad, far less for a girl. But for her.... And in winter-time she would come racing home on ski—rushing into the place and making the doors shake. Then she would jump on my lap, put her cold hands on my shoulders, and look mischievously: 'Why, what's this, brother? As gloomy as a monk again, I declare!' And I should feel happier then, but still a little earnest, and say, 'Maya, Maya, what a child you are! As thoughtless as a boy. And such a noise you make about the place.' 'Oh, but you're always in the dumps—sitting here moping like a grey owl. You ought to go out and race through the snow, till it whirls up about your ears ... that's the thing to freshen you up....' And then she presses cold hands against my cheek, till I shiver, and looks teasingly. And then all my dull humour's gone, and I can't help laughing at her, and calling her a little impudent thing...."
Olof stopped, and smiled—as if to fix the picture of this bright young creature indelibly in his mind.
The voice of the gloom spoke again: "So she is to live just for your pleasure—like all the others?"
The smile died from the young man's face.
"Go on—your sister is sitting on your lap, looking mischievously into your eyes...?"
"No, no—not like that—no. She looks earnestly, with eyes that no deceit can face, and says, 'Olof, what's this they are saying about you...?'
"And she looks at me still. 'Hard things they say, brother—that you play with women's hearts.... Is it true?'
"And I cannot meet her eyes, and bow my head.
"'Olof—remember that I too am a woman.'
"And that cuts me to the heart. 'Sister, sister, if you knew it all; if you knew how I have suffered myself. I never meant to play with them—only to be with them—as I am with you.'
"'As you are with me?' She looks at me; wonderingly. 'But you know—you must know—that you cannot be as a brother to them.'
"'Yes, I can—sometimes.'
"'But never quite. And still less can they be sisters to you. Surely you know enough to understand that.'
"'But you should know. Oh, think! With some men, perhaps, they might be as sister and brother—but not with you. You, with your dark eyes—I have always feared them. They beckon and call ... to evil and disaster.'
"'Sister—what must you think of me!' And I hide my head in her lap, as I used to do in mother's.
"'I am only sorry—bitterly sorry for you. And I can't help being fond of you, for I know your heart is good and pure—but you are weak; very, very weak.' And she strokes my forehead, as mother used to do.
"'Yes, I am weak, I know it. But I promise you....'
"'Don't promise!' she says almost sternly, and lifts a finger warningly. 'How many times have you promised, with tears in your eyes, and done the same again? Don't promise—but try to be stronger.'
"'I will try, sister—dear, dear sister.' And I take her hands and kiss them gratefully again and again...."
"Ho! so that's the way you talk together, is it?" said the gloom. "Well, I'm not sure it might not be a good thing if your sister were alive. Then, perhaps, if she talked like that to you occasionally, you might be a different man altogether."
The young man sat for a while in thought.
"Then suddenly she jumps up and lights the lamp—it is getting dark. And she comes and puts her hands on my shoulders and says, 'Let me help you checking those accounts—you know I can.'
"And she sits down at the table, and I watch her little hand gliding over the paper. And I set to work at the books, and so we work for a long time.
"Then suddenly she looks up, and begins talking again. 'Why, what a great man you're getting, Olof—keeping the books in an office of your own—and with a secretary into the bargain. There's never a lumberman risen so far at your age, and never a foreman that looks so fine, with office and clerk and all'
"And I laugh at that. 'And never one with such a sister to help—that I'm sure.'
"Then she turns serious again, and looks at me strangely. I can't make out what she means.
"'Tell me,' she says at last, 'how long are you going to go on with this wandering life? It's three years now.'
"'Is it so long as that?' I ask in surprise. 'Twill be longer yet, I doubt.'
"'If I were you, I would make an end of it at once. Let us both go home and take over the farm there—mother and father have worked so hard there all their lives—it's time they were allowed to rest.'
"I look at her without speaking, and she understands. 'Father? Never fear—he's forgotten his anger long ago. And mother and he are both waiting for you to come home—for brother Heikki is too young to take over the place....'
"'Do you really think so?'
"'Think? I know! And there's any amount of work all waiting for you. New ground to be sown, and a new barn to build, and we ought to have three times the stock we have now. And there's all Isosuo marsh—you've that to drain and cultivate. When are you going to begin?'
"'Drain the marsh? How could you think of that?'
"'Why shouldn't I? I'm your sister. It will be a big piece of work—father himself never ventured to try it—but you're a bigger man than your father—a big, strong man....'
"'Sister! Now I simply must give you a kiss. There's no one like you in all the world.
"And we go home the very next week. And all turns out just as you said—more live stock, new ground sown, clover where there was but marsh before, and Koskela is grown to a splendid place, known far and wide. And we are so happy—with you to keep house and me to work the land. And the years go by and we grow old, but our children....
"... Oh, misery! What am I dreaming of...?" "That was the best of your dreams so far," said the gloom, with a full glance of its coal-black eyes. "May it soon come true! But light your lamp now—it is dark as night in here now."
"If I were a poet, I would sing—a strange, wild song.
"And if I could string the quivering kantele, I would play on it a melody to my song.
"I would sing of you, and of love. Of clematis with the snow-white flowers. For you are as the clematis, my love, sweet and beautiful as its blossoms, dear as its growth about the windows of a home—and deep, endlessly deep, as life itself."
"But that is just what you are doing, Olof—for all you say is like a poem and a song," answered the girl. "Sing for me again—and let me just sit here at your feet and listen."
"Ah, if only you could sit there always, as now. Clematis—how strange that I should meet you—when I never thought to meet with any flower again—saw only the yellow faded leaves of autumn everywhere around."
"Autumn ... faded leaves...." The girl looked at him, timidly questioning. "Olof, don't be angry with me. But.... Have you loved others before? They say so many things about you."
The young man was silent a moment.
"Ay, there are many things to say, perhaps," he murmured sadly. "But you, Clematis—could you care for me; could you not love me altogether, if you knew I had loved another before?"
"No, no—'twas not meant so," said the girl hastily, touching his knee with a slight caress. "I was not thinking of myself...."
They looked at each other in silence.
"Yes—I know what you mean. I can read it in your eyes." He laid one hand tenderly on the girl's head.
"Life is so strange. And human beings strangest of all. I have loved—but now I feel as one that had only dreamed strange fancies."
"But have you loved them really—in earnest? I mean, did you give them all you had to give—and can anyone give that more than once in life?" The girl spoke softly, but with such deep feeling that the young man found no words to answer, and sat silently staring before him.
"Who can tell," he said, after a while. "I thought I had given all I had long since, and had all that could ever be given me. I felt myself poor as the poorest beggar. Then you came, unlike all the others, a wealth of hidden treasure in yourself—none had ever given me what you gave. And now—I feel myself rich, young and unspoiled, as if I were crossing the threshold of life for the first time."
"Rich—ay, you are rich—as a prince. And I am your poorest little slave, sitting at your feet. But how can anyone ever be so rich—how can it be? I can never understand."
"Do you know what I think? I think that human beings are endlessly rich and deep, like Nature itself, that is always young, and only changes from one season to another. All that has happened to me before seems now only the rising of sap in spring. Now summer comes for the first time—all calm and warmth and happiness. I have been like a fairy palace, with a splendid hall to which none could find the key. But you had it all the time—the others could enter this little room or that, but only you had the key to the best of all."
"Is it really true, Olof? Oh, I shall remember those words for ever!"
"It is true—you were the first that taught me how deep and mysterious, how wonderful, the love of a man and a woman can be. That it is not just a chance meeting, and after that all kisses and embraces and overflow of feeling. But a quiet, calm happiness in the blood, like the sap in the trees, invisible, yet bearing all life in itself; speechless, yet saying everything without a single touch of our lips."
"Yes," said the girl earnestly. "But did you not know that before? I have always felt it so."
"No—I did not realise that it was so intimate a part of our nature; that it was the foundation of life and happiness for all on earth. Now at last I understand that we are nothing without one another—we are as earth without water, trees without roots or mould; or as the sky without sun and moon. And I know now much that I did not know before—the secret of all existence, the power that sustains us all."
"And you know that it is love—the greatest of all! But why does no one ever speak of it—I mean, of love itself, not merely the name?"
"I think it must be because it is too deep and sacred a thing to talk about; we do not understand it ever until we have experienced it each for himself. And those that have—they must be silent—for it is a thing to live on, not to talk about. Do you know, I have just remembered something I once saw. Just a scene in a poor little hut—but it explains it all...."
"Something you have seen yourself?"
"Yes. It was many years ago. It was a cold winter day, and I came to this hut I was speaking of—'twas a miserable place to look at. The windows were covered with frost, and an icy draught came through cracks in the walls. Two children were sitting by the stove, warming their feet that were all red with cold; the other two were quarrelling over the last crust of bread."
"Were they so poor as that?" asked the girl, her voice quivering with sympathy.
"Poor as could be. And in a heap of rags on the bed lay the mother, with a newborn child—the fifth. The man was sitting at the table. He looked at the children on the floor, and then at the mother and her little one in bed—looked at them—and laughed! And the joy in his pale, thin face—it was a wonderful sight...."
"And the mother?" asked the girl eagerly. "Was she happy too—more than he?"
"Yes, she laughed too for joy at everything—the children, and the rags, and the draughty hut, and all. And I was so astounded I didn't know where to look. Happy—in all that misery and wretchedness! Were they so utterly without feeling, then, that they could not cry? But now I understand it all. I know what made those poor folk happy in it all: they had found that thing we spoke of—the great secret. And it made the hut a palace for them, and the ragged children as dear as those of any king and queen—yes, they were happy."
The two sat in silence for a while. Olof felt a slight thrill pass through the girl's body to his own.
"I see it now," said the girl at last. "A little while ago I could not see what it was that made life so deep and wonderful. And do you know, Olof—I should like to be just such a poor woman as that—frost on the windows and rags for a bed, but ... but...." Bright tears shone in her eyes.
"But—what?" he asked tenderly, taking her head in his hands.
"But with the one I loved—to be mine—all mine, for ever!" she answered, looking straight into his eyes.
Olof started. It was as if something had come between them, something restless and ill-boding that broke the soft swell of the waves on which they drifted happily—something, he knew not what, that made its presence felt.
"Or—not that perhaps—but to have something of his—something he had given me—to lie beside me in a bed of rags and smile," said the girl. And laying her head in his lap she clung to him as if her body had been one with his.
* * * * *
The lamp was lit, and a little fire was burning on the hearth. The girl sat on the floor, as was her way, holding her lover's feet in her lap—wrapped in her apron, as if they were her own.
"Go on working—I won't disturb you," she said, "only sit here and warm your feet and look at you."
Olof gave her a quick, warm glance, and turned to his work again.
"Olof," said the girl, after a pause, "what shall I have to hold in my lap when you are gone?"
She looked up at him helplessly, as if he alone could aid her.
Olof made a movement of impatience, as if he had made an error in his reckoning that was hard to put right.
"Nothing, I suppose," he said at last, trying to speak lightly. "You had nothing before, you know."
"Ah, but that was different. Now, I must have something."
There was a strange ring in her voice—the young man laid down his pen and sat staring into the fire. It was like talking to a child—a queer child, full of feeling, knowing and imagining more than its elders often did. But still and for ever a child, asking simple questions now that were hard to answer without hurt.
The girl watched him anxiously.
"Don't be angry, Olof," she said entreatingly. "It's very silly of me, I know. Go on with your work, and don't bother about me. Do—or I shall be so sorry."
"You are so quick to feel things," said he, pressing her hand. "I'll talk to you about it all another time—do you understand?"
"Yes—another time. Don't think any more about it now."
But the words echoed insistently in his ears, with a hollow ring—as if he had spoken carelessly, to be rid of a child's questioning for the time. He took up his pen again, but could not work, only sat drawing squares and interrogations on the margin of the paper.
The girl moved closer, laid her cheek against his knee, and closed her eyes. But her mind was working still, and the light of a sudden impulse shone in her eyes when she looked up at him.
"Olof," she asked eagerly, "are you very busy?"
"No—no. What then?" From the tone of her voice he knew she had something important to say.
"There was just an old story that came into my mind—may I tell it to you, now?"
"Yes, yes, do," said Olof, with a sense of relief. "You are the only girl I have ever met who could tell fairy tales—and make them up yourself too."
"This is not one I made up myself. I heard it long ago," she answered.
"Well, and how does it begin?" said Olof briskly, taking her hands. "'Once upon a time...'?"
"Yes, those are the very words. Once upon a time there was a boy—and a girl. And they loved each other—especially the girl. No words could ever tell how she loved him." She looked at Olof as if to see the effect of what she had said.
"That begins well. Go on," said Olof. But a thought was slowly taking form in his mind.
"And they sat in the woods, under the tall birches, and talked of how happy they were. But the girl could not have the boy for her own—they had to say good-bye. He had to go away, and she knew she would never see him again."
Olof looked thoughtful—the fancy was taking root. "Go on—what happened then?"
"Then, just as he was going away, the girl said to him, 'Set a mark on me somehow, so that I shall always feel I belong to you, and no one can tear you from my heart.'
"The boy thought for a moment. 'Where shall I set the mark?' he asked.
"'Here, above my heart,' said the girl.
"And she bared her breast, and the boy took out his knife and with its sharp point scratched a little heart on her breast."
The girl shivered a little.
"And then he coloured it where he had cut, like sailors do with anchors on their arms. And when he had finished, he kissed it. And they said good-bye, and he went away."
Olof was touched—now he understood....
"And what then?" he asked softly. "What happened after, to the girl with a mark above her heart, and to him that made it?"
"The boy...." She stopped, at a loss, and then went on: "There's no more about him in the story. He went away. Only about the girl...."
"Yes, yes, of course," said Olof. "He went away. And the girl?"
"The girl—she looked at the mark every night when she undressed, and every morning when she dressed herself, for she felt as if he were there all the time, because of the mark. But then the time came when her parents said she must marry. And she didn't want to, but she had to all the same. But she did not love her husband, and was always looking secretly at the mark her lover had made, as if she were talking with him that way, and it made her happy."
"And the husband," asked Olof eagerly, "did he find out?"
"No. Men don't notice things like that as a rule. But then the girl bore a child—she was still a girl, for she had remained true to her lover. And the child had the very same mark in the same place.
"The husband saw the mark. 'What's this?' he asked in a stern voice.
"'Tis a birth-mark,' said the girl. "'Do not lie to me!' cried the man. 'It is more than that. Let me see your breast.'
"Now the girl did not want to do this, for she felt that the mark was nothing to do with him. But her husband's face grew dark with anger, and he tore away her clothes, and bared her breast. And now she would not try to hide the mark at all, but stood up straight and let him see. And before he could even ask, she told him what it was, 'That is the mark my lover made when I was a girl,' she said. 'For a sign that I should belong to him for ever—and I have.' And at that the husband's eyes flashed, and without a word he drew his knife and struck it through the mark deep into her breast...."
She would have said more, but her voice failed—she could feel Olof's knees trembling against her breast.
"You are good at telling stories," said he in a stifled voice. "But the end was too horrible."
"It was not horrible at all," she replied. "It was just as lovely as could be. The girl herself could have wished for nothing better. She died with a smile on her lips, as only those who are happy ever die.
"But it is not all ended yet—there is more to come."
"More?" cried Olof in surprise, at a loss to understand how she would go on.
"Yes," she continued. "For when she was dead, the girl came to the gate of heaven. And there stood St. Peter at the gate, as he always does.
"'You cannot enter in,' said St. Peter, 'for you bear on your breast the mark of sinful lust. 'But God heard it from His throne, and cried, 'Open and let her in!' And God looked at the girl's breast, and she did not flinch. 'You should know better,' He said to St. Peter reproachfully. 'Here is one that was faithful to her first love.... Enter in, My child.'"
Both were silent. A little blue flame rose from the embers on the hearth.
"Thanks, Clematis," whispered Olof, and kissed her hands that lay hot in his own. "I know what you meant. And how prettily you said it!"
"Are you sure you knew what I meant?" she asked. "I hadn't finished, you know...."
"What—not finished yet?"
She drew her hands away, and as if summing up all she had said before, she clasped his knees and looked imploringly into his eyes.
"Give me that mark!"
Olof shivered—waves of heat and cold seemed passing through his body.
"No, no—my love! You must not ask that of me—it is more than I can do," he went on bitterly.
"You can, if you only will. Love can do all things."
"But now—after what you have said...."
"But you said yourself it was so pretty."
"Yes—there is a lovely thought in it—but the end was too horrible—you know what I mean."
"That was the loveliest of all. Oh, won't you do what I ask?" Her lips trembled, and she looked at him entreatingly.
Olof sighed deeply; drops of sweat stood out on his forehead. "How can I refuse you anything? But—but I could never forget it if I did, and...."
"Oh ... I almost thought that was how it would be. You cannot understand—for you are not me. But something I must have!" she went on passionately. "I cannot live without. Look!" She drew from her breast a little case of blue silk, hung by a red cord round her neck, "See—it just reaches to there!"
"It's very pretty," said Olof in relief, taking the case in his hand." And you want something to put in it?"
"A lock of hair or something? Are you as childish as all that?"
"No—not as childish as all that."
"A flower, then—or what?"
"No, nothing like that."
"You want me to write something, then?"
"No, no. I want yourself—your very self!"
Olof looked at her blankly—he could not guess what was in her mind. He felt himself more and more in the power of something he had been striving to escape.
"Oh, don't you understand? Your portrait."
"But—but I have only one. And—I have never given anyone my portrait."
"No," said the girl confidently. "You have kept it for me."
Olof felt himself shamed. What a poor creature he was grown! Why could he not rise up and take this strange rare child in his arms, and swear by all he revered that she had touched his inmost heart, that he was hers alone, for ever?
He sprang to his feet, and cried earnestly, "Yes! It was taken for you, and for no other!"
But the words ended in a sob—it was as if his blood were turned to sand. With trembling fingers he took out the portrait, and sank down as if paralysed into his seat.
The girl watched him with a starry gleam of ecstasy in her eyes.
But he could not meet her glance—he bent his head, thinking bitterly to himself, "What have I come to? Why do I cheat her and myself, why do I give these beggar's crumbs to one that should have all?"
The girl sat still with the same light of wonder in her eyes, looking now at the portrait, now at Olof himself.
"Yes, it is really you," she said at last, and touching the picture with her lips, she laid it in the case, and slipped it into her bosom.
"Now I have nothing more to ask," she said. "I shall thank you all my life for this. When you are gone, you will be with me still. I can talk to you at night before I sleep, and in the morning you will be the first thing I see. I can whisper to you just as I used to do. And when I am dead, you shall be buried with me."
Olof was overwhelmed with emotion—it was as if something within him had been rent asunder. He looked at the girl's face—how pure and holy it was! Why could not he himself be as she was? What was it that had happened to him?
He felt an impulse to throw himself on the floor at her feet and tell her all—and then rise up young and pure and whole again, able to feel as others did. But he could not; an icy voice within him told that the days of his spring-time were gone for ever. And as he felt her arms about him once more, he could only bend down humbly and touch her hair with his lips in silence, as if begging her to understand.
Warm drops were falling on his knees, warm drops fell on her hair. Welling from deep sources—but unlike, and flowing different ways.
Sunday morning—a calm and peaceful time. Olof was up, and sat combing his hair before the glass.
"Those wrinkles there on the temples are getting deeper," he thought. "Well, after all, I suppose it looks more manly."
He laid down the comb, turned his head slightly, and looked in the glass again.
"Paler, too, perhaps," he thought again. "Well, I'm no longer a boy...."
He moved as if to rise.
"Look once more—a little closer," urged the glass.
Olof brushed his moustache and smiled.
"Can't you see anything?" the glass went on, with something like a sneer. "Under the eyes, for instance?"
And suddenly he saw. The face that stared at him from the glass was pale, and marked by the lines and wrinkles of those past years. And under the eyes were two dark grey furrows, like heavy flourishes to underline a word.
"Is it possible?" he cried, with a shudder.
"Is it any wonder?" said the glass coldly.
The face in the glass was staring at him yet, with the dark furrows under the eyes.
"But what—how did they come there?" asked Olof in dismay.
"Need you ask?" said the glass. "Well, you have got your 'mark,' anyhow—though it was not one you asked for."
* * * * *
The face in the mirror stared at him; the dark furrows were there still. He would have turned his head away, or closed his eyes, but could not. He felt as if some great strong man were behind him with a whip, bidding him sternly "Look!"
And he looked.
"Look closer—closer yet!" commanded his tormentor. "A few deep lines—and what more?"
Olof looked again. The plainer furrows tailed off into a host of smaller lines and tiny folds, this way and that, there seemed no end to them. And again he shuddered.
"Count them!" cried the voice behind him.
"Impossible—they—they are so small!"
"Small they may be—but how many are there?"
Olof bent forward and tried to count.
"How many are there?" thundered the voice—and Olof saw the whip raised above his head.
"Nine or ten, perhaps," he answered.
"More! And what do they mean? Can you tell me that?"
"No? Then let me tell you, that you may know henceforward. The first...?"
"I—I don't know."
"You know well enough. Bright eyes—that is the first."
He flinched involuntarily as under the lash. And now the strokes followed sharply one on another.
"A fine figure and curling hair ... tears and empty promises ... a thirst for beauty ... false brotherhood ... selfishness and the desire for conquest ... dying voices of childhood ... dreams and self-deceit...."
"Not yet. There are little extras that you have not called to mind."
"Leave me in peace!" cried Olof almost threateningly.
"You could not leave yourself in peace. Look again—what more—what more?"
"Go!" Olof sprang up with a cry like that of a wounded beast, took the mirror and flung it against the stove, the pieces scattering with a crash about the floor. His blood boiled, his eyes burned with a dark, boding gleam.
"And what then?" he cried defiantly. "My mark? Why, then, let it be. I'll go my own way, mark or no mark."
He picked up his hat and hurried out.
TO THE DREGS
"And now—I'll drink it to the dregs!
"Why not? I've tasted the rarest wine in cups of purest crystal—why not swallow the lees of a baser drink from a tavern stoup? 'Tis the last that drowns regret. Others have done so—why not I?
"Once we have tasted, we must drink—we must dip down into the murky depths of life if we are to know it to the full—ay, drink with a laugh, and go on our way with lifted head!
"Drink to the dregs—and laugh at life! Life does not waste tears over us!"
Olof strode briskly out toward a certain quarter of the town, a complex of narrow streets and little houses with stuffy rooms, where glasses are filled and emptied freely, and men sit with half-intoxicated women on their knees, sacrificing to insatiable idols.
It was a summer evening, bright and clear. The noise of day had ceased, and few were abroad. It seemed like a Sunday, just before evening service, when all were preparing for devotion, and he alone walked with workaday thoughts in his mind.
A narrow door with a grating in the centre. Olof stood a moment, evidently in doubt, and walked on—his heart was thumping in his breast. The consciousness of it irritated him, and turning back impatiently, he knocked loudly at the door.
No sound from within. He felt as if thousands of eyes were watching him scornfully, and for a moment he thought of flight. He knocked again, hurriedly, nervously.
A pause, that seemed unendurably long, then a sound of movement and steps approaching the door—the panel was moved aside.
"What's all the noise about?" cried a woman's shrill voice. "In a hurry, aren't you? Get along, and that quick—off with you!" The panel closed with a slam.
The blood rushed to Olof's cheeks; for a moment he felt like breaking down the door and flinging it into the street—he would gladly have pulled the house down in his fury.
Wondering faces appeared here and there at the windows. They were looking at him as if he were a criminal—a burglar trying to force an entry in broad daylight. Half-running, he hastened back to the main streets of the town. Then the fury seized him again—a passion of wounded pride and defiance. "Am I to be taken for a boy?" he said to himself angrily.
He passed a row of waiting cabs. One of the men touched his cap inquiringly, but Olof shook his head—the fellow had an honest face. The last in the row gave him what he sought—a sly red face with shifty eyes.
"Eh? Take you?... That's easy enough! I know the very house. First-rate girls, all of them, and no trouble. 'Tis the best sort you'll be wanting, I take it?"
"That's the style. Just step in, now, and we'll be there...."
The cab rumbles away; Olof leans back, feeling himself again.
* * * * *
Through a gateway into a cobbled yard. The driver gets down, and Olof follows suit. The man knocks with the handle of his whip at a door.
"'Tis no good coming at this time—the girls aren't here yet." And the door is slammed in his face.
"Drive on, then! Drive to the devil, only let's get out of this," cries Olof.
"Nay, nay, no call to give up now we're on the way." The driver swings out into the street again, and tries another entrance of the same sort farther on.
Olof stood half-dazed, waiting.
This time the knock was answered by a girl's voice, bright and pleasant. The driver and the girl exchanged whispers through the door. "Sober? Ay, he's sober enough. Young chap, and plenty of money—wants the best sort."
Olof's blood boiled. Was he to be bargained for like a beast in the cattle market? He was on the point of calling the man away, when the door opened a little. "Right you are, then," said the man, with a knowing gleam in his eyes.
"Good evening—won't you come in?" A young girl, neatly dressed, held the door open for Olof with a smile.
He went through the passage into a little parlour. The heavy-scented air of the place was at once soothing and exciting to his senses.
"Sit down, won't you? But what are you looking so serious about? Has your girl thrown you over—or what?"
"Now, how on earth did you guess that?" cried Olof in sudden relief, thankful that the girl was so bright and talkative. He felt all at once that he too must talk—of anything, nothing, or he could not stay in the place a minute.
"Guess? Why, that's easy enough. They always come here when there's anything wrong with—the others. And there's always something wrong with some of them. Was she pretty?" The girl looked at him with a mischievous gleam in her eyes.
"Pretty?—yes, that she was, pretty as you, nearly."
"Puh!" laughed the girl. "And she kissed you, I suppose?"
"No. Wouldn't even kiss me."
"Aha. So you made love to another girl, and then she threw you over—that was it, I'm sure."
"Right again! Yes—made love to another girl—that was it. And quite enough too."
"Oh, it's always the way with—well, that sort of girls. They don't understand how to make love a bit. There's heaps of love to be had, if you only know where to look for it."
They both laughed—the girl in easy, teasing gaiety, Olof still thankful at finding it so easy to suit himself to his company.
"What'll you have to drink? Sherry, madeira, or stout, perhaps? I like sherry best."
"Let's have all three!" cried Olof.
"That'll be twenty, please." He gave her the money and she slipped from the room.
Olof looked round. How was this going to end? He was thankful at any rate that the room was neatly, almost tastefully furnished, and that the girl was so easy to talk to.
The bottles and glasses were brought in. "Here's to us both!" cried the girl, lifting her glass with an enticing glance.
They drank—it was the first time Olof had ever tasted wine. And all the bitterness and unrest in his soul seemed drowned at once.
"I say—is this your first time?" The girl explained her question with a meaning glance.
"Yes." The word stuck in his throat. "Have some more to drink," he added hastily.
"That's right!" The glasses rang. "Got any cigarettes?"
Each lit a cigarette. The girl leaned back in a careless posture, throwing one leg over the other, and watched the smoke curling up in the air.
"First-rate institution, isn't it?" she said, with a laugh. "Sort of public sanatorium—though the fools of police or Government or whatever you call it won't make it free. All you men come here when you're tired and worried and ill, and we cure you—isn't that it?"
"I dare say...."
"But it is, though, take my word for it. How'd you ever get on without us, d'you think? Like fish out of water! And yet we're reckoned as outcasts and all that. Devil take all your society women, I say. There's one I see pass by every day, a judge's wife, haughty and stuck up as a weathercock on a church spire. Think she'd look at one of us? But her husband, bless you, he...."
"For Heaven's sake talk of something else," cried Olof. He swallowed a glass of sherry to cover his disgust.
"Eh? Oh, all right, anything you please. Sing you a song if you like. What d'you say to that."
"Yes, but nothing...."
"Not a word. Dainty little song. Here you are:
"'Here's a corner for you and me, Room for two—but not for three! A glass for each within easy reach... Just the place for a spree!'"
"How's that? Quite nice, isn't it?"
"Go on." Olof settled down more comfortably there was something pleasantly fascinating in the dance-like rhythm of the song.
"Cushions are soft, and curtains hide,— What would somebody say if they spied? Kisses and laughter—and what comes after...? Ah.... You never know till you've tried!"
Olof could not help laughing.
They sat laughing and talking and telling stories—the girl was never silent for a moment. The glasses were filled and emptied, the smoke grew thicker.
"Oh ... it's too hot. I'm stifling with all these things on!" The girl rose to her feet, her eyes glittered, her cheeks were flushed with wine. "I'll be back in a second." And she slipped through into the adjoining room.
"Do, if you like." Olof sank back idly on the sofa, watching the smoke from his cigarette thoughtfully. Still he was not quite at home in the place.
The girl came in like a vision, tripping daintily in light slippers, her arms bare to the shoulder, her body scarcely veiled by the thinnest, transparent wrap.
"Oh!" Olof could not repress an exclamation.
"Aha...!" The girl laughed mischievously. Watching his face with a coquettish smile, she lifted one foot gracefully on to the sofa, and leaned towards him, her eyes boldly questioning.
Olof felt his senses in a whirl. He saw in her a mingling of human being, beast and angel, of slave and mistress—a creature fascinating and enticing, bewitching, ensnaring. But only for a moment. His mood changed to one of fury at his own susceptibility; the burning thirst in the girl's eyes, the fumes of wine in her breath, repelled him.
"Sit down and drink—and let that be enough!" He snatched a bottle hastily and filled the glasses to the brim.
"Ho!" said the girl, with a stare. "Drink—is that all you've come for?"
She stepped down from the sofa, her features quivering with scorn.
"Well, you're a nice one, you are. If they were all like that—drink and pay the bill and off again—and not so much as a ... well, you're the first I've met of that sort—hope you'll enjoy it!"
She drank, and set down the glass, a sneer still quivering about the corners of her mouth.
Then, leaning her elbows on the table, she gazed at him thoughtfully under her lowered lashes. Olof smoked furiously, till his cigarette looked like a streak of fire.
The girl sat down on the sofa, at the farther end, and went on with a maudlin tenderness in her voice:
"Why are you like that—a man like you? I wouldn't now for money, whatever you offered me. Can't you see I'm in love with you? Or d'you suppose perhaps a girl—a girl in a place like this—can't love? Ah, but she can, and more than any of the other sort, maybe. I'd like to love a real man just for once—I've had enough of beasts. Stay with me to-night—won't you...?"
Olof shuddered in disgust.
"Drink!" he cried. "Drink, and don't sit there talking nonsense."
Then again a revulsion seized him, and with a feeling of despair and weakness, he went on:
"I can't stay here, I must go—I must go in a minute. Never mind. Drink."
"Oh, let's drink, then," said the girl bitterly, and, rising, emptied her glass. "Drink—yes, and drink and drink—'tis the only thing when once you're—here." She sank down into a seat. "Night and day, morning and night—there's none of us could stand it if it wasn't for that stuff there. Ho, the world's a mad place—what a fool I am!"
She burst into tears, and fell forward with her arms on the table.
Olof felt more miserable than before. The blood was pulsing in his temples, and something choking in his throat, as he looked at the sobbing figure.
"I'll tell you what this place is," she said, looking up between sobs. "'Tis hell—and in hell you're always wanting something to wet the tip of your tongue—I've read that somewhere, haven't I? Oh, oh...!" She fell to sobbing again.
Olof felt he could bear it no longer. He would have liked to comfort her, but his tongue was dry, he could not speak.
Then suddenly the girl jumped up and struck the table with her fist, shaking the things on the tray. "What the hell am I snivelling about—'twon't make it any better." She took the bottle of beer, filled a tumbler and drank it off at a draught, then flung the glass crashing against the wall behind the stove.
"Puh! Now I've got that wretched fit again." She stood in the middle of the room, looking round. "I can't help it, I get like that every now and then. Wait a bit, and I'll bring you better company. A real good girl—she's younger than me, and only just beginning, but she's lovely, lovely as an angel. Only don't go and fall in love with her, or I'll be jealous."
"No! Stay where you are!" Olof would have stopped her, but she was out of the door in a moment. He rose to his feet, his head was throbbing, and he could hardly stand.
"Here you are—here's the beauty!"
A bright-eyed girl, young and slightly built, stood in the doorway smiling.
Olof started as if he had seen a ghost, the blood seemed to stand still in his veins; a cold weight seemed crushing him like an iceberg.
"You—Gazelle!" he cried in horror.
"Oho, so you're old friends, it seems? Well, then, shake hands nicely. Come along, man, give her a kiss...."
Olof felt the room growing dark before his eyes.
The girl turned deathly pale. She stood a moment, trembling from head to foot, then turned and fled. There was the sound of a key drawn from a lock, a door was slammed, and then silence.
Olof stood as if rooted to the spot, seeing nothing but a vague glimmer of light through a rent in blackness. Then at last he pulled himself together, snatched up his hat, and rushed out of the place as if pursued by demons.
* * * * *
Morning found him seated on a chair by the window, looking out. The night had been cold. Before him lay a group of housetops, the dark roofs covered with a thin white coating of rime; beyond, a glimpse of a grey, cold sky.
He had been sitting thus all night, deep in thought. His road seemed ending here in a blank wall—or he was grown suddenly old, and could go no farther—or was trying vainly to rise from a bed of sickness. His eyes burned, his head was heavy as lead, and his heart seemed dead and cold, as hands and feet may do in winter when on the point of freezing.
He rose to his feet, and bathed his face again and again with cold water. Then he straightened his hair, put on his clothes, and went out.
He took his way direct to a certain street, reached the house he was seeking, and knocked. There were people moving in the yard, and some children about; but he felt no shame, and knocked as easily as if it had been a church door.
The panel opened, and the harsh voice of an old woman asked:
"What d'you want here at this hour? The girls are not up yet."
"When will they be up?"
"In a couple of hours or so."
He looked at his watch, and went out into the street. For a while he wandered up and down, then took the road out from the town, and went straight on.
When he came back his face was pale; his feet were so weary he could hardly drag himself along.
He knocked again; the panel was thrust aside, and a face peeped through, then the door was opened.
"Hallo!" It was the girl of the night before. She was half-dressed, her eyes dull, her face tired and haggard. Olof felt as if he were breathing in the fumes of beer and wine and all unspeakable nastiness.
"Your friend—is she up yet? I want to see her," he stammered.
"Up—ay, she's up long ago; you can see for yourself."
She vanished down the passage, and returned in a moment with a crumpled sheet of notepaper, which she handed him.
Olof glanced at it, and read, hastily scribbled in pencil, these words:
"When you get this I shall be far away. I am going and not coming back. I can't stay here.—ELLI."
"There—what's the meaning of that, if you please?" cried the girl.
Olof made no answer. He held the paper in a trembling hand, and read it again and again; a weight seemed lifted from his shoulders.
"May I—may I keep this?" he asked, with flushing cheeks.
"Keep it—ay, eat it, if you like."
"Good-bye—and—and...." He pressed the girl's hand, as if unconscious of what he was doing.
The girl watched him as he hurried away.
"Queer lot," she murmured. "Something wrong somewhere...."
BY THE ROADSIDE
A man came walking down the sandy, grass-bordered road.
He walked mechanically, like a machine set to go, and going without consciousness or effort—without a question or a thought, without a glance to either side—on and on.
He reached the top of a rise from which the road sloped down to the valley. And here he stopped, as if set to go no farther.
Before him spread the landscape of the valley; green woods encircled it on every hand, like a protecting fence about a pleasure-garden. Within the area enclosed were mounds and hilly fields, stretches of meadow, farmsteads, rows of corn-sheaves and haystacks, patches of stubble, a tiny stream with a bridge and a fall, and mills on either bank.
A thrill of emotion seized the wanderer at sight of it all; one glance let loose a flood of memories and thoughts of things long since forgotten.
All seemed as before. He looked at the stream, and followed the line of its course with his eye. The mills stared at one another from bank to bank, as they had always done since the beginning of time. But the mills themselves had changed. The old wooden structures were gone, and in place of them stood modern stone-walled buildings.
A lightning thought came into his mind: was there anything that was unchanged, though the setting seemed as it had been? What might not have happened in the little place during those years?
The wanderer felt uneasy at the thought. Here he was—but who could say what he would find here, now he had come?
Slowly, with heavy steps, he took his way down towards the village. And ever as he neared it, his uneasiness increased.
* * * * *
He came to a turn in the way. From just beyond came the tinkle of a bell, and, as he rounded the bend, he saw a flock of sheep grazing, and a fair-haired lad watching the flock.
The sight gladdened his heart—the sheep and the shepherd lad at least were as he had hoped to find them.
"Good-day!" he said heartily. "And whose lad are you, little man?"
"Just Stina's boy," answered the young herdsman easily, from his seat by the wayside.
"Ho, are you? ... yes." The wanderer stepped across the ditch, sat down by the wayside, and lit his pipe.
"And what's the news in the place? I've been here before, d'ye see, and used to know it well. But 'tis long since I heard anything from these parts."
"News?... H'm." The lad felt a pleasant sense of importance at being thus asked, and stepped down from his seat. "Well, you've heard, maybe, 'twas Mattila's Tytto won the first prize at the cattle show?"
"You don't say so? Mattila's Tytto?" echoed the stranger, with a laugh. "And what else?"
"Why, there's no more that I know of—let me see...." The wise little eyes grew thoughtful. "Oh, I forgot. Yes, Maya, she's married, and they're building a bit of a place over by the clearing there. Shoemaker, he was, and a good match, they say."
"I see. That'll be the place. Looks as good as could be."
"'Tis a fine place. Going to have a real stove, with a baking oven and all.... Then there's been another wedding besides, at Niemi—Annikki's it was. Only just married—though there's been plenty that asked her these years past, and rich men some of them too."
"Yes...." The wanderer felt as if something had struck him in the breast. Impatiently he went on:
"And how's things at Koskela?"
"Koskela—well, old man there he died last spring, and they say...."
"Died?" A heavier stroke this; it seemed to paralyse him.
"Yes—and two horses to the funeral, with white covers and all. And silver stars all over the coffin—like the sky it was."
The wanderer felt himself gazing helplessly into a darkness where hosts of silver stars danced before his eyes.
"You knew him, maybe?" asked the lad, watching the man's face.
"Ay, I knew him," came the answer in a stifled voice.
"And his wife's like to follow him soon," went on the boy. "She's at the last gasp now, they say."
The wanderer felt as if something were tightening about his heart.
"So there's neither man nor wife, so to speak, at Koskela now."
The wanderer would have risen, but his limbs seemed numbed.
"There was a son, they say, was to have taken over the place, but he went away somewhere long ago, and never came back."
The wanderer rose to his feet. "Thanks, little man." And he strode off.
The lad stared wonderingly at the retreating figure, whose heavy steps sounded like sighs of pain from the breast of the trodden road.
"Come in," said the key invitingly.
But the weary man stood motionless, paralysed by the thought that had come to him as he reached the door.
"Come in—you've waited long enough in coming."
And the weary man grasped the key, but stood holding it helplessly, like a child without strength to turn it.
It rattled in the lock under his trembling fingers. The noise roused him; he opened the door and went in.
* * * * *
It was like entering a church. A solemn, expectant silence hung over the place—it was just as it had been when, as a child, he had first been taken to church.
And now, as then, his glance sought first of all the farthest background of the place. What he saw was like and yet unlike what he had seen there. Then, it had been the figure of a young man, holding out his arms over a group of children; now, it was the figure of an old woman, worn with sickness—but with the same great gentleness in her face.
The woman's eyes lit up, as though she had seen a miracle; her glance grew keen, as if wishing to be sure, and softened again, in the certainty that the miracle had come.
The trembling head was lifted, the frail body rose up like a bent bow, her mouth opened, and her lips began to move, but no sound came—she could but reach out one thin, trembling hand to the figure by the door.
He moved, and walked over to the bed. And the old woman and the weary man took each other's hands and pressed them, looked into each other's eyes and trembled with emotion, unable to speak a word.
Tears rose to the old woman's eyes, a gleam as of sunset over autumn woods lit her wrinkled face; the thin lips quivered between smiling and weeping.
"So you came after all," she said at last in a trembling voice. "I knew you would come—some time. And good that you came just now...."
She sank back wearily on the pillow, and the man sat down on a chair at her side, still holding her hands in his.
* * * * *
The old woman lay with her face turned towards her son, looking at him with love in her eyes.
Then her look turned to one of questioning—there was something she had been waiting years to ask.
"Tell me, my son...." Her voice was almost a whisper.
But he could not answer.
"Olof, look at me," she begged.
And the man beside the bed lifted his eyes, great dark eyes full of weariness and stark fear—but bowed his head again and looked away.
The smile vanished from the old woman's face. She gazed long and searchingly at her son's haggard chin, his sunken cheeks and loose eyelids, the pale forehead, the furrowed temples—everything.
"Perhaps it has to be," she murmured, as if speaking to someone else. "'And wasted all his substance.... And he said, I will arise and....'"
Her voice trembled, and Olof, in a hasty glance, saw how her wrinkled mouth quivered with emotion.
And suddenly the coldness that had almost paralysed him up to now, seemed to melt away. He fell on his knees beside the bed, his face in the coverlet, and knelt there sobbing.
It was as in church, at the moment when each single heart withdraws from all the rest to offer up its own silent prayer.
* * * * *
The old woman lay resting in her bed; her face wore the same look of sorrowful gentleness that it had done for years, despite the ravages of sickness.
But to-day, signs of uneasiness were apparent; shadows of fear seemed flitting ever and anon over her features.
Olof wiped his mother's forehead gently. "You are not so well to-day?" he asked.
"'Tis not that—no. I called you, there was something I wanted to say. But I'm not sure—perhaps it would be better not...."
He took her withered hand tenderly in his.
"Why do you think that, mother? You have never said anything but what was good."
"'Twas meant to be so—ay, that's true. But there's times when it's hard to say what's best to do, and it's so with me now. For years I've been thinking to tell you before I closed my eyes the last time. And it's been a comfort to me in many trials. But now I come to say it...."
The sick woman's breast heaved, and drops of sweat stood out on her forehead.
"Best not to think too much if it worries you," said Olof, wiping her brow once more. "'Twill be all right in time."
"'Tis right enough—I know that really. 'Twould be a wrong to myself and you, and to all I've hoped and believed, if I didn't speak—yet it's hard to begin. Come closer, you too, Heikki—I can't speak so loud...."
The elder brother, who had just come in from the fields with his muddy boots on, had sat down close to the door. He moved his chair now nearer the bed.
The sick woman lay for a while in thought, as if weighing the matter in her mind. Then she looked long and earnestly at her two sons.
"You two will have to divide what's left," she said at last. "And I've not said a word of it before; you're not like to quarrel over it, I know. But there's one thing in the place that I want to keep separate from the rest, and give it up to you now, before I go."
She sighed, and was silent for a while, as if needing rest before she could continue. The two young men watched her expectantly.
'"Tis nothing of great value, but it's all tied up like with something that happened once, and all the thoughts of it—and 'tis valuable to me. I mean the cupboard there."
The sons glanced at the thing where it stood; an old cupboard in two sections, that they knew well.
"You look surprised. Oh, if I could only tell you...."
She gazed upwards in silence, as if praying for strength. Then, with a strange light in her eyes, she turned towards them and went on almost in a whisper, as one who tells a tale of ghosts:
"It was long ago. In this very room, on this very bed here lay a woman who had borne a man-child but four days before. She had always been tender and faithful and obedient to her husband, and had tried to do his will in everything. And she had been happy, very happy. But before the child was born, a suspicion had begun to grow up secretly in her mind. And now, on the fifth night, as she lay there with the newborn child, in the pale light from a lamp on the shelf of the cupboard there, the fear at her heart grew all of a sudden so strong that she got up, and went into the next room, to see if what she dreaded was true...."
The sick woman turned her face to the wall, to hide the tears that forced themselves into her eyes.
"But the one she sought was not there, and driven by fear, she crossed the courtyard, barefooted, and half-clad as she was, in the cold, over to the still-room. They used to make spirits at home in those days. She opened the door softly and looked in. There the fire was burning, and by the flickering light she saw a woman—a young woman then—lying on a bed, and beside her the man she herself had risen from her childbed to seek. And at the sight of them her heart died in her. She would have cried aloud, but only a groan came from her lips, and she went back, dreading at every step lest her legs should fail her...."
The sick woman gasped for breath, and lay trembling; the listeners sat as if turned to stone.
"How she got back," went on the old woman, "she did not know herself; only there she was, sitting on the bed beside her child, pressing her hands to her breast, that felt as if it would burst. Then she heard footsteps outside, and a moment later the door opened, and with a roar like a wild beast, a man strode in—furious, with bloodshot eyes. He uttered a dreadful curse, and swung up an axe above his head. The woman almost fainted with fright. Then behind him she saw her sister reaching up with a cry of horror towards the axe he held. It flew from his hand, the steel shone in the lamplight—and what happened after she did not know...."
It was as if the axe had fallen at that moment, striking them all three. The mother closed her eyes. Olof was trembling from head to foot; his brother crouched in his seat, his features stiff with horror.
"When she came to herself," went on the sick woman in a trembling voice, "her husband was sitting beside her, with his head in his hands, his face ashy pale, his eyes bloodshot, and his body trembling all over as if shivering with cold. The axe had flown straight over the place where mother and child had been, missing them by an inch, and stuck fast in the cupboard beyond—it was standing there as it stands now...."
The woman sighed as if in relief to find the danger past.
Olof grasped her hand eagerly, pressed it, and looked imploringly into her eyes.
"Yes, yes," she nodded, "he begged forgiveness—and she forgave him. And they were friends again. And that night he fetched up some putty from the cellar and filled the hole the axe had made, and painted it over afterwards. But—you can see where it was...."
Olof rose to his feet and walked over mechanically to the cupboard; his elder brother sat still on his chair, looking over at the place in silent horror.
"You can see—it struck just between the two sides, and cut deep into the edges. It's plain to be seen, for all it's painted over now. As for the woman...."
She broke off suddenly, her face pale and bloodless, her features quivering with painful emotion.
"The woman—she forgave him, and never a harsh word between them after. Folk said they lived so happily together.... But the hurt—the hurt was there. A woman's heart's not a thing to be healed with any putty and paint...."
* * * * *
She was silent, but her face was eloquent with feeling still.
Olof went back to his place, took her hand and kissed it again and again, with tears, as if praying for forgiveness. For the first time he realised the inner meaning of his mother's nature as he knew it—the undertone of sadness in her gentle ways. And he could not free himself from a strange, inexplicable feeling of guilt in himself, though till that day he had known nothing of her secret.
"And for the man ... well, well, let him rest in peace! 'Twas not from any thought to soil his memory—but you're grown men now, my sons, and when you've wives of your own.... Ay, a good man he was in many ways, a clever worker. And I know he suffered himself for—for the other thing. He'll be judged, as we shall all be judged—we've all of us enough to answer for...."
For a long time the sick woman lay as if overwhelmed by stress of feeling, unable to speak. Olof, with tears in his eyes, sat deep in thought; the elder son had not moved.
"And now I can leave it to you," she went on more calmly. "'Tis all tied up, as I said, with thoughts of that time, ay, and hopes and prayers, all the best and the hardest in my life. And I'm not the only one that's had such things to bear through life. There's many a one the world knows nothing of, for a woman can bear a great sorrow and never speak of it. And I've heard since, that there was trouble of the same sort here in the house before my day.... Heaven grant I may be the last to suffer! And so I wanted you to take the thing between you—half to each—the scar's between them, so you'll share that too. Remember it, and tell your children some time. And they can pass on the legacy to theirs—with all the hopes and prayers and tears it brought—only let the name be forgotten!"
All three looked earnestly at the grim heirloom that stood there reaching from floor to ceiling; it seemed to grow, as they watched, into a monument over the grave of many generations.
* * * * *
The sick woman turned anxiously to her sons.
"Will you take it?" she asked. "Will you take it, with all that it means...?"
Olof pressed her hand to his lips in answer. The elder brother sat motionless, as before, his eyelids trembled as if he were on the point of tears. His mother read his answer in his eyes.
"I'm glad it's over now," she said in relief. "And now I've no more to give you, but—my blessing!"
Her face lit with the same great gentleness that had softened it for years, she looked long and tenderly at her sons.
"Olof," she said at last, as if to wake him from his thoughts; "it happened at the time before you were born...."
The elder son looked at his mother in astonishment—why should she tell them what they had known all along?
But Olof looked up suddenly, as if he had heard something new and significant. The quiver in his mother's voice told him what she meant, the look in her eyes seemed to shed a light on what had been dark before.
Questioningly he looked at her, as if silently asking confirmation of his thought.
She nodded almost imperceptibly.
"I have often thought of that, these last sad years...."
Olof felt as if a mighty storm had suddenly torn away a dark, overshadowing growth, laying bare the heart of a fearsome place—deep clefts and stagnant pools and treacherous bogs.
"Ay, there's much that's hard to understand," she whispered in his ear. "But go to your work, now, sons. I'm tired now, leave me to rest...."
The young men rose and left the room. In the doorway they turned and cast a last glance at their mother, but she seemed no longer to heed them. She lay with her hands folded on her breast, gazing calmly at the old cupboard where it stood by the wall, like a monument above the grave of many generations.
THE HOUSE BUILDING
The funeral was over.
The two brothers sat by the window, in thoughtful mood, and speaking little.
"... And you'll take over the place now, of course," said Olof to his elder brother, "and work the farm as it's always been done since it's been in the family. 'Twon't be long, I doubt, before you bring home a wife to be mistress here.... Anyhow, I take it you'll go on as before?"
"What's in your mind now?" asked Heikki, with a little sharp cough.
"Only what I've said—that you'll take over Koskela now," said Olof cheerfully.
"H'm. You know well enough 'twas always meant that you were to take over the place—I'm not the sort to be master myself. Look after the men at their work—yes. But run the place by myself...."
"You'll soon get into the way of it," said Olof encouragingly. "And as to the men—I've an idea a farm's the better for a master that works with his men as you've always done, instead of going about talking big and doing nothing."
The elder brother cleared his throat again, and sat staring before him, drumming with his fingers on the edge of the chair.
"And what about you?" he asked, after a while.
"Oh, I'll look after myself all right. Build a bit of a house, and maybe turn up a patch of ground or so."
"Build a house...?" repeated the other in surprise.
"Yes. You see, brother, each goes his own way," went on Olof heavily. "And I've a sort of feeling now that I can't live on anything out of the past. I must try and build up a life for myself, all anew. If I can do that, perhaps I may be able to go on living."
The elder brother stared with wide eyes, as if listening to words in a strange tongue. Then he began drumming with his fingers again.
"H'm. I don't know quite what you mean, but it's no business of mine, anyway." He spoke with a touch of respect in his voice, as if to a superior. "We'll have to do as you say. But do you think Koskela will be the same with none but me to look to it all?"
"Surely it will!" said Olof warmly.
"Why, then, have it as you please. But if things begin to go wrong here, then you'll have to take over yourself."
"I will if need be. But by the time you've ploughed this autumn you'll see yourself there will be no need. Good luck go with you, brother, and with the place."
"H'm." The elder brother coughed again. "And what about the price. We must fix that beforehand."
"What for? You take over the place as it stands, and you'll find it good enough. Give me the bit of marshland at Isosuo, and the oat fields adjoining, and the little copse that's fenced in with it, and that's all I want. You can let me take what timber I want from your part, for building and such."
"Ho, so you think that's fair, do you?" said his brother eagerly. "A nice bit of ground—and there's all the clay you'll need ready to hand. But it'll cost a deal of hard work to drain and clear it—I've thought over that many a time. As for the building timber—you shall have all you want, and help for the carting. But all the same, we must fix a price for Koskela as a whole, and make a fair division."
"There's nothing to divide, I tell you. You take over the whole place, except the bit I've said. You see how it is: each of us wants to give more than the other's willing to take, so there's no need to quarrel about that. And if I want anything later on, I'll ask you for it; if there's anything you want, you'll come to your brother first."
"Well, well—I dare say it'll be all right. Anyhow, I'll do what I can to keep up Koskela as it's always been."
And the elder brother began once more drumming with his fingers, faster this time, and as it were more firmly.
Suddenly he sprang up. "They ought to finish that field to-day—I must see they don't stop work before it's done."
He left the room and hurried across the courtyard.
Olof rose and followed his brother to the door, watching him as he strode along, with head bowed forward a little and arms swinging briskly at his sides.
"Each works best in his own way," he said to himself, smiling affectionately at the thought. "And maybe his way's like to be better for Koskela than they ever thought."
* * * * *
Olof turned off from the main road down a little forest track; he carried an axe on his shoulder.
An autumn morning, solemn and still. The night had been cold, the morning air was so fresh and light it almost lifted one from the ground—it seemed almost superfluous to tread at all.
A strange feeling had come upon Olof as he started out. Between the hedge-stakes on either side of the road hung bridges of the spider's work—netted and plaited and woven with marvellous art, and here and there a perfect web, the spider's masterpiece, hung like a wheel of tiny threads. Then as the sun came up, thread and cable caught its rays, till the road seemed lined with long festoons of silver, and decked at intervals with silver shields.
In the forest, too, it was the same—the path lined with silver hangings on either side, and webs of silver here and there along the way.
"Spiders bring luck, so they say," thought Olof.
"Well, at any rate, they're showing me the road this morning."
And he strode on briskly, eager to begin.
"To-day's the test," he thought. "All depends on how I manage now. If it goes well, then I can do what I will. But if I've lost my strength and will these years between, then—why, I don't know where to turn."
Eagerly, impatiently, he hurried on, trembling with expectation, and sweating at the brow.
"Maybe I'm taking it too seriously," he thought again. "But, no—it is life or death to me, this. And I don't know yet what I can do—it may go either way...."
He swung the axe in a wide circle from the shoulder, held it out at arm's length, then straight above his head, and swung it to either side. It weighed as lightly as a leaf, and he felt a childish delight—as if he had already passed the first test.
* * * * *
He reached the place at last—a hillside covered with tall, straight-stemmed fir and pine. He flung down coat and hat, never heeding where, glanced up along the stem he had chosen, then the axe was lifted, and the steel sank deep into the red wood—it was his first stroke in his native forest after six years' absence.
The forest answered with a ringing echo from three sides, so loud and strong that Olof checked his second stroke in mid-air, and turned in wonder to see who was there.
And the trees faced him with lifted head and untroubled brow, without nod or smile, but with the greeting of stern men bidding welcome.
"Hei!" Olof answered with a stroke of the axe.
And so they talked together, in question and answer and dispute....
"What am I working out here all alone for?" said Olof. "Why, 'tis this way...." And with the red-brown fir chips flying all around him, he told them the story.
"So that's it? Well, good luck to you," answered the trees, and fell, one after another, till the earth rang and the echoes answered far through the forest.
Olof felt himself aglow with an inward fire that flamed the more as he gave it way in ringing strokes of the axe. He counted it a point of honour to strip each branch off clean at a single blow, be it never so thick.... And the more he worked the happier he grew.
He was trying to win back the years in which he had never held an axe.
* * * * *
By noon, he stood in the middle of a clearing already.
"Well, how does it feel?" asked the trees, as he sat down, with his jacket slung over his shoulders, hastily eating the meal he had brought with him.
"None so bad—hope for the best," he answered.
Again the axe flashed, the branches shivered, and the earth rang. "Bit crooked, that one," said Olof to himself; "but I can use it all the same—do for a piece between the windows."
"Well, you know best," said the trees. "But how many windows are you going to have—and how many rooms? You haven't told us that yet."
"Two rooms, no more—but two big ones." And Olof told them all his plans for doors and windows and stoves, and an attic above the entrance—he had thought it all out beforehand.
"Yes, yes.... But where are you going to build?"
"On the little hill beside Isosuo marsh—that's where I thought."
"Isosuo marsh?" cried the trees, looking in wonder first at one another and then at Olof himself. Then they smiled triumphantly.
"Bravo!" they cried in chorus. "Bravo, and good luck go with your building, and prosperity roof over all! 'Tis good to see there's some that still dare begin life for themselves in the forest."
"'Tis that I'm hoping to do—that and no more."
"But what do folk say to it? Don't they think you're mad?"
"They call me nothing as yet, for I've not told any of what I'm doing."
"Just as well, perhaps," said the trees.
And they fell to talking of Isosuo, of drains and ditching, the nature of the soil, and all that Olof would have to do.
And the axe sang, and the chips flew, and the woods gave echo, and the talk went on. And the day came so quickly to an end that Olof started to find how it was already growing dark.
"Well, and what do you say now?" asked the trees expectantly.
Olof stepped from stem to stem, counting the fallen. There were forty in all—and he laughed.
"I shall be here again to-morrow, anyhow," he said gaily.
"If you come to-morrow, then you will come again till it's done," said the trees. "Come, and be welcome!"
* * * * *
Olof walked home whistling cheerfully; he felt as if the house were already built up round him. It was a great thing, enough to take up all his thoughts, and strong enough in itself to strengthen him anew.
WAYS THAT MEET
"HIRVIYOKI, KYLANPAA, 28/9/97.
"Kyllikki,—You will be surprised, no doubt, to hear from me again after so many years. I am not sure of your address, and do not even know if you are still 'Kyllikki,' or possibly someone with another name that I do not know. I am too proud to ask news of you from any but yourself.
"And now to what I have to say. I have never been able to free myself from you quite, however much I wished. I have tried to forget you, to wipe away all trace of you from my soul, but in spite of everything you have followed me from place to place, year after year, and now, just lately, you have been ever before my eyes. Was it your friendship that followed me so, or my own guilty conscience—or perhaps my better self that has been longing for you, and silently calling for you, though I tried to stifle the voice?
"I do not know. I only know that my years of wandering are over now, and I have come to settle down in my own place. I may freely confess that I was weary and broken down, worn out and hopeless, when I came home—to see my mother for the last time, and follow her to the grave. And I cannot say, even now, that I am much better, though perhaps a little. I can feel something in me that seems to grow, something that gives me hope. So perhaps it is not altogether lost.
"I am building myself a house, and have other plans of a like sort. But there is one thing I miss, and the lack of it grows stronger every day: a friend and comrade, one that I could respect and trust entirely. Not one to share my good fortune, but one to be with me in toil and want.
"Kyllikki, you can never guess how I have suffered in doubt and questioning of late. Have I any right at all to hope for comradeship? Could I promise anything to anyone? And if so—to whom?... Kyllikki, you know me well enough to understand what I mean. It is no light question, and no easy one to answer.
"As far as I myself am concerned, I believe I see my way clear. And therefore I ask you—will you venture out upon the water with me once more—not the mere crossing of a little stream, but for a voyage that may lead we know not where? I cannot be sure that we should ever reach safely to land, only that if your hand is still free to give, and you are willing, and can trust me enough to offer it, then I will never let go, whatever may come.
"And one thing more—could a daughter of Moisio venture to share the lot of a poor settler? I can offer nothing more, and would not if I could. If she will, then I can dare anything.
"Again—would you wish to join your life with mine? Or do you despise me, perhaps? I will not try to defend myself, and it would be useless in any case, for I know that little matters would not influence your decision; all must rest on what you think of me as a whole, and that is fixed already.
"One thing most of all—let there be no question of pity or giving out of charity. I fancy neither of us would ever give or take in that way, but I have heard say that pity counts for much in a woman's heart. Myself, I do not think pity can go far, if the earlier feeling is once dead. And you know best yourself whether that is so.
"Is your father still alive? And does he still think as before? But it makes no difference now. Once we are agreed, ten fathers could make no difference. I feel now that I can do what I will.
"And that is all for now, Kyllikki. You know how anxiously I wait to hear from you—your answer means very much to me. But I know it will be clear and true, whichever way it may be. OLOF.
"My address is, Olof Koskela, as above."
* * * * *
"KOHISEVA, 2 Oct. 1897.
"OLOF,—Your letter found me. Kyllikki is unchanged—and you, I see, are much as I had thought you would be. Proud and exacting as ever, though not perhaps in quite the same way. And well it is so, for if you had seemed otherwise I should have suspected at once.
"Yes, I will venture. I am ready to venture anything. I did not even need to think it over; I had decided long since, and have not changed. I am not ashamed to tell you that I knew more of you than you thought. I have followed your doings and your movements from a distance, until you came home, and determined to wait for you till it was past hoping for. I feel I ought to tell you this at once, that you may know I am not building up fair hopes on no foundation, but know what I am doing, and what I can expect.
"You need not fear pity from me, Olof. I believe in fate, and in life as a thing with some meaning. I have often wondered, these last few years, if there could be any meaning in my life, and why fate had brought us so strangely together. Was it only to make us suffer? I came at last to the conclusion that if there were any meaning in my life, it must be with you; and if fate had any plan at all, it must be that you should come back to me some day, even though the way were hard. And you came, came with the very word I had been waiting to hear from your lips for years—that you had need of me! All is easy after that; no need to doubt or hesitate. I can answer at once: I am ready.
"I do not think, or hope, that our way will be strewn with roses. But it is right, I feel that; and in time we shall reach our goal.
"Come, Olof, come soon. Four years I have waited—four years of longing, all my life's longing.—Your
"P.S.—Father is the same, but what you say about that is what I say myself.
"One thing I would ask you—let me see you alone first, before you meet my father. I could not bear to meet again after all these years in that way. Come to our old meeting-place beforehand, if you can, and let me know what day and time you will be there.
Olof walked up the steps to the homestead at Moisio.
A trifle pale, perhaps, but confident, ready to meet whatever might chance, and determined to gain his end.
He opened the door and went in. There were two in the room: an old man with bushy brows—who, unaware of the visitor's approach, was on the point of going out himself—and a girl. She was waiting anxiously, and as the door opened, her heart beat as if it would leap from her breast.
All three stood for a moment in silence.
"Good-day to you," said Olof respectfully to the old man.
No one answered. Olof marked how the dark brows drew together like two murky storm-clouds.
"Good-day," came the answer at last, sharp and hard—as if the speaker were unwilling to deny a certain courtesy, even to the most unwelcome guest, in his own house.
Having said so much, however, he felt no further obligation, and went on sternly:
"I told you last time that I did not wish to see you again. What brings you here now?"
The words fell like strokes of an axe; the girl turned pale, and leaned against the wall.
"This," said Olof calmly. "When I spoke to you last time, matters did not pass off as they should. I beg your forgiveness for that. And now I have come to ask again for your daughter's hand."
"You—a wastrel...!" The old man's voice trembled with anger.
"I have been. But let us talk calmly, if you please."
"Lumberman!" The word was flung out with a bitterness and contempt that cut like a knife.
A dark flush rose to Olof's cheek; he was hard put to it already to control himself.
"True," he said, slowly and with emphasis. "I have been a lumberman. There are clodhoppers enough to ditch and plough, but good lumbermen are none so easy to find."
The old man raised his eyebrows, then lowered them again with an expression as of a beast about to spring.
"Go!" he thundered.
A deep silence followed. Olof bit his lip, then drawing himself up defiantly, he poured out a flood of words.
"You—you drove me out from here once before, and I went at your bidding. Now, I move not a step till we have fought this out between us. I came to you to-day with all respect—yes, and asked your pardon for last time, though even now I do not know which of us two was more in the wrong. And I am going now, but not at your bidding—and not alone. I have come to ask for what is mine by right—and I would do the same if she were a star in the skies of heaven!"
The old man was leaning forward with clenched fists; without a word he rushed towards the door.
Olof's mind was made up on the instant—he would take the man by the arms and set him down and bid him talk over matters quietly and decently, as became his age. He stepped forward resolutely.
"Father!" The girl sprang forward hastily between them, "Father—I ... it is true. I am his by right!"
The words came like a blow from behind—the father turned and looked long at the girl.
"You...!" he cried, astounded. "You say—you are his by right? Ho! And perhaps you've been waiting for him, then, all these years, when you said 'No' to one after another?"
"Yes," she answered calmly. "And I have made up my mind to be his wife."
The old man took a step towards her.
"Made up your mind, have you...?"
"Yes," said the girl gently; "and I want you, father, to consent."
"But suppose I've made up my mind?" The old man drew himself up and stood between them, straight as a fir stem. "And this I say: My daughter's not for any wandering lumberman that has the impudence to ask."
He spoke with firmness and authority—matters seemed hopelessly at a deadlock. There was a moment of tense silence. Kyllikki bowed her head, then slowly she looked up and faced her father, steadily, confidently—Olof noticed with surprise how the two in that moment were alike. Expression and attitude were the same in both.
"And if she chooses to give herself—what then?"
The old man's eyes flashed.
"Then—why, she can go as his mistress, if she please, but not as my daughter!"
Silence again. Kyllikki flushed angrily; Olof was hardly able to restrain himself. But he realised that the two must be left to themselves for what concerned themselves—he could only make matters worse.
"Choose," said her father, coldly and with dignity. "And make haste about it—the fellow here is waiting. But mark this," he added with a sneer, as confident of victory: "If you go, you go at once. And you take with you nothing—not a rag nor stitch that was my daughter's. You go ... dressed as you came. You understand!"
The two stood amazed at first, hardly comprehending. Then, as the meaning of his words dawned on them, in its fearful cruelty, they looked at him aghast.
"Father ... is that your last word?" asked the girl earnestly.
Pale and red by turns, she stood hardly seeming to breathe.
The old man's lips curved in a scornful smile. Olof stood waiting his sentence, unable to think or feel.
Then slowly the girl raised her head, seeming to tower over her surroundings. She raised her hands without a tremor, slipped the fastenings of her blouse, and almost before they could realise what she was doing, she stood bare-armed, bare-throated before them.
The smile faded from the old man's lips. Olof's heart beat with a wild delight—he felt an impulse to take the girl in his arms and carry her off.
Calmly she went on—unhooked her skirt and let it slip to the floor beside her blouse.
The old man's face was ashy pale. Olof turned his back in fury and disgust.
But the girl never flinched. Quietly she loosened the strings of her petticoat....
"Enough!" The old man's voice was like a cry from the underworld.
Olof turned—the girl looked inquiringly at him.
"Go! Take her—be off with you both!" cried her father, beyond himself. "Ay, you're hard," he went on, to the girl, "hard and obstinate as the rest of our blood ever were, too hard for your woman's clothes! And as for you, I hope you can keep a wife now you've got her. Of all the cursed...."
The young pair flushed, but they stood still, unable to move.
"Get your things on," said the old man impatiently. "And you—sit down."
A sudden wave of shame came over the girl; snatching up her clothes, she fled into the next room.
The master of Moisio walked slowly to the window and sat down heavily, a beaten man. Olof felt a thrill of pity for the old man.
They sat for a few moments in silence; then Kyllikki entered once more, blushing still, glanced hastily at Olof, and sat down, watching her father's face.
At last the old man turned. The scene had left its mark on him, but there was dignity still in his glance as he looked Olof full in the face.
"You've made yourself my son-in-law," he said, "though 'twas no wish of mine it should be so. But we may as well start with a clear understanding. 'Tis our way here to say what's to be said at once, or give a blow where it's needed—and have done with it."