"'Tis no bad way," said Olof, hardly knowing what he was saying. "My father's way was much the same."
There was a slight pause. "We've one or two things to talk over now," went on the old man. "I should like to hear, to begin with, what you're thinking of doing. Wandering about as before, maybe?"
"No. I've done with that. I've settled down in my own place—I'm building a house there," answered Olof.
"H'm. Building a house, are you? I could find you a house here, for that matter. I dare say you know I've no son to come after me. And I'm an old man now."
Olof looked wonderingly at him. "I understand now," he said slowly, "what you meant before. And I thank you for your kindness. But it's this way with me now—I can't live in another man's house; I must make a place for myself, and work for myself. I was to have had the farm at home, but I couldn't take it." "A farm?" cried the old man, rising to his feet. "Where—where do you come from, then?"
"From Kylanpaa in Hirviyoki—I don't know if you've heard of the place."
"I have been there, years ago," said the old man in a kindlier tone, taking a step towards him. "And what's the name of your place there?" he asked.
"Koskela? That's a big place."
"Why, 'tis big enough," said Olof.
"And why didn't you say that before—when you were here last?" said the old man sharply. "'Twould have been better for both if you had."
Olof flushed slightly. "I never thought to take a wife but in my own name," he answered—"for myself, and what I might be worth by myself."
"Yes, that's your way," said the old man, scanning him critically. "I see it now."
He glanced out of the window and seemed to catch sight of something. "Don't mind what's past," he said kindly. "There's the horses coming from the smith's. I must look to them a minute. I'll be back again...." And he strode out.
The two that remained felt as if the calm of a bright Sunday morning filled the room after a stormy night. Blushingly the girl hurried across to her lover, who came towards her; she flung her arms round his neck, and whispered:
"Olof, I have never really known you until now!"
"And I," he answered, "have never known you till to-day."
THE BROKEN STRING
The dark of an autumn evening was abroad. It marched along the roads, stole over the meadows, and sat brooding in the forest; the shimmering waterways marked its track.
But at Moisio all the homestead was ablaze with light; every window shed its bright stream into the night, as if from a single fire within.
And from within came a constant sound of many voices, as of men sitting round the hearth relating manifold adventures. Outside, all round the house, were voices too, loud and low, soft and harsh, with an undertone of whispering in corners, and footsteps moving here and there. All that there was of life and light and sound in Kohiseva seemed gathered this night at Moisio.
The fiddler played his hardest, the floor creaked, and the walls quivered to the tramp of many feet; a stream of figures passed continuously before the windows.
The wedding had taken place that afternoon. Then came feasting and dancing—and the guests were dancing still, though it was close on midnight.
The bridegroom was a fine upstanding fellow, and the bride a worthy mate—as stately a pair as any had seen. All the neighbourhood agreed in this—and all had seen the couple, though not all had been bidden to the feast. A whisper had been passed among the crowd without, followed by a shout from all, demanding to see the bride and bridegroom. And when the pair came out and stood in the porch, with their following behind, the onlookers greeted them with shouts and cheers—just as at fine folk's weddings in the great cities, declared those who knew.
The bridegroom was happy—and well he might be, with such a bride. And the bride, too, was happy—as well she might be after waiting all those years. All knew the story—the first strange wooing, with the desperate venture down the rapids, and the lover's Song of the Blood-Red Flower as he went away. And more was whispered about—fragmentary tales of the bridegroom's adventurous life and the trials of the girl who waited for him to return; rumour had gathered what was known, and popular fancy had added thereto at will. The stories passed from mouth to mouth among those outside, and even among the guests within, reaching almost to the bridal pair themselves. There was a touch of something legendary, heroic, about it all, that shed a halo of romance even upon old Moisio's grey head.
* * * * *
Again they call for bridegroom and bride—the hero and heroine of the story—manly courage and womanly faithfulness personified; a sight to look on again and again. Again the light streamed out into the porch, and again the shouts and cheers went up, and one or two of the more curious and venturesome slipped into the house unbidden in the press.
It was a bright and festive scene within. The roof-beams were draped with white, and the hangings glittered like newly-fallen snow in the morning sunlight. The walls, too, were draped, and decked with wreaths and garlands; here and there a bunch of fresh juniper twigs seeming to speak of newly-arisen life.
* * * * *
The dancing ceased for a moment; the guests adjourned to the well-furnished tables in an adjoining room—the women following the bride, the men by themselves, with the bridegroom and old Moisio himself. Trays clattered, glasses rang, a hum of gay voices filled the room, and all eyes shone with a festive gleam.
Then the fiddler tuned up once more, and the guests streamed out back into the hall. The men stayed a moment to finish their glasses, and followed after.
The bridegroom came last. Suddenly it occurred to him to fetch something for the fiddler, and he turned back. Having found what he wanted, he was leaving the room, when a stranger barred his way.
Olof started; the man had come suddenly and silently as a ghost. There was something uncanny about him as he stood there—a short, heavily-built fellow, standing without a word, one hand in his trousers pocket, a cigar in his mouth, and a red rosette, such as peasants wear on holidays, in the buttonhole of what was evidently his best coat. There he stood, gazing fixedly at Olof, with a curious glitter in his eyes.
"I've a word to say to the bridegroom, if so be he's time to hear," said the man in a hoarse voice, still keeping the cigar between his teeth.
"Why ... here I am, if you want me," said Olof, "though I don't know who you are...."
"No," said the man, "you don't know who I am. And yet we're sort of related—yes, that's the word—for all we've never met before."
He took a step forward.
"'Tis your wedding night—and I've come to wish you joy of it. You've played with many a woman's heart in your time, and driven more than one good lad to despair—maybe 'twill do you good to learn...."
"What?" cried Olof, with sudden fury. "Out with it, man!"
The fellow's glassy eyes seemed to be straining forward, the pupils were glittering points of light.
"You, that have worked your will on any and all as it pleased you—robbed your betters of all they had and cared for—'twill do you good, maybe, to know that.... Do you think you're taking an innocent girl for your bride?"
The man stood watching the effect of his words. He saw Olof's face darken, his nostrils expand and quiver. Saw him tremble from head to foot, like a tree about to fall, waiting but for the last stroke of the axe. Well, he should have it....
"Well—how does it feel?" He bowed mockingly, and went on with a sneer: "Wish you joy.... I've more reason, perhaps, than the others, seeing we're partners, so to speak, in the same...."
"Liar—devil—coward!" Olof's rage broke loose. A step forward, almost a spring, and with the strength of fury he seized the man by his coat with both hands and lifted him from the floor.
"Say your prayers!" hissed Olof between his teeth, still holding the man in mid-air, the shirt-front crushing under his grip. The man struggled helplessly once or twice, then hung limp; the cigar fell from his mouth, and Olof felt the body a dead weight in his hands.
"I ... I've been drinking," he gasped—"drinking... don't know what I've been saying...." The words bubbled pitifully from the pale lips, like the last drops from an empty barrel.
"Well for you!" Olof set the man down and loosed his hold. "Or I'd.... Huh! Get out of this—d'you hear?"
The man staggered, looking this way and that, then turned and stole from the room without a word.
* * * * *
Olof stood alone. His brain was in a whirl, dazzling lights floated before his eyes.
"It must be true! No one would ever dare unless...." There was no doubt in his mind—it was only too natural that it should be so. The retribution he had feared so long—it had come at last, and ruined all in a moment.
The fiddler was playing louder than before; the whole house shook—they were dancing again. To Olof the music seemed like a mighty peal of scornful laughter, as if the host of people there were laughing and dancing for joy at his shame.
"Make an end—make an end!" he cried to himself, and he rushed from the room. How he was to end it he did not know—only that this was unendurable—it was hell!
* * * * *
Smiling faces greeted Olof as he appeared in the doorway and stood a moment, unable to get through the press. His brain cleared a little—after all, he could not drive the guests from the house like a madman with a knife in his hand.
They stood aside to let him pass, and he slipped round by the wall to the farther end of the room, and went up to the fiddler.
"Will you sell it," he whispered—"sell your fiddle? There's a man wants to buy it—he's asked me. Never mind about the price—say what you like."
"Why ... I don't know. 'Tis an old friend," answered the man, playing more softly as he spoke.
"Will you sell it? At your own price. Yes or no?"
"H'm ... well, say thirty marks?"
"Good! The man'll be here directly. And now, play a polka—and play like the devil himself, as if you were kissing your girl for the last time. The fastest you've ever played."
The fiddler nodded.
* * * * *
Olof walked up to a young girl and bowed. The fiddler broke off, and struck up a polka at such a furious pace that the dancers stopped and looked at one another in surprise.
But Olof went off in wild career with his partner, and several other pairs followed. These, however, soon fell out, and all stood watching the bridegroom, who danced like a man bewitched. His eyes blazed, a strange smile played about his lips, and his head was lifted defiantly.
The onlookers were filled with admiration and wonder—never had they seen such a dance! Olof took a second partner, then a third; danced a couple of rounds with each, and took a new. He did not lead them to their places after, but slipped each lightly, bowed to another, and whirled her off at the same furious pace.
"What's come over him now?" whispered the guests.
"He's going to dance with them all—for the last time, it seems."
"Ay, it looks like it!" And they laughed and watched the extraordinary scene—after all, it would have been strange if something out of the common had not happened at Olof's wedding.
Once more Olof set his partner down and bowed to another. Formally this time, as if with emphasis: it was Kyllikki he had chosen now. The girl stood dismayed, uneasy, not knowing what to think.
The fiddler, noting who was the latest choice, pressed his instrument closer under his chin, and put his whole fire into the work. The music swelled and sank, the bridal pair danced lightly and gracefully—sight to see. Once, twice, three times, four times round, and still they danced.
Then as they passed the fiddler for the fifth time, the music suddenly stopped—Olof had snatched the instrument with his right hand as he passed, and next moment it was shivered to a thousand fragments against the table. A single string whined painfully as it broke.
A gasp went up from the onlookers; all stared in amazement at the pair. Neither showed any sign of confusion; they stood easily, as if the whole thing were a prearranged conclusion.
"I hope I haven't startled anyone,'" said Olof gaily. "But the fiddle that has played my youth away—must play no more! Good-night!"
A sigh of relief and admiration passed through the crowd. What a finish! What a youth! None but he could ever have done the like.
And the guests laughed, and the bridegroom laughed, and old Moisio himself laughed where he sat: "Ay, that's the way! Turn your back on the rest and give all to one—my daughter's worth a fiddle at least!"
But the bride was pale—as it might have been one Sunday evening by the river, when she sat alone on the bank, watching a man stride hastily away, with a flush of anger on his cheek.
THE BRIDAL CHAMBER
A man, with a dark fire smouldering in his eyes, entered in—the pale bride followed him.
The man walked up and down the room with heavy strides, biting his lip and frowning angrily. Suddenly he stopped, and stood by the table against the farther wall, with a cold, piercing glance at the pale-faced girl.
She had been standing silent and thoughtful by the window—now she approached him with hesitant step.
"Olof," she murmured, her voice quivering with tender anxiety—"Olof—dearest, what does it mean?"
"Dearest?" He snapped out the word between clenched teeth like the rattle of hail against a window-pane. His voice trembled with tears and laughter, cutting scorn and bitterness. He grasped her roughly by the shoulders.
"Keep away!" he cried, boiling with rage, and thrust her from him with such violence that she stumbled and sank down on a sofa.
There she sat in the same position, struck helpless by the suddenness of the blow. Then she rose and, flushing slightly, walked resolutely up to him again.
"Olof, what does all this mean?" she asked. There was tenderness still in her voice, but beneath it a steely ring plain to be heard.
Olof felt his blood boiling in his veins—that she, guilty as she was, should dare to stand there with uplifted head, and look him calmly in the face! His eye fell on the myrtle wreath which she wore—emblem of bridal purity—and it seemed to mock him anew. He felt an almost irresistible impulse to fall on her and tear her in pieces.
"It means," he cried, stepping threateningly towards her, "that you have no right to wear that wreath—that you are an infamous cheat!"
And with a violent movement he tore the wreath and veil from her head, and trampled them underfoot, till the wires of the framework curled like serpents on the floor. "Liar—liar and hypocrite!" he cried.
Kyllikki did not move; she stood there still silent, only the red flush in her cheeks deepened.
Nothing was left of the wreath now but some strands of wire and a few loose leaves—Olof spurned it aside, and the veil after it. Then he drew himself up, and looked at Kyllikki with the eyes of a man who has crushed one foe and prepares to meet another.
"Will you be good enough to tell me what all this means?" said Kyllikki, calmly as ever, but with a new note in her voice that almost amazed herself.
"Tell you? Ay, by Heaven. If I had my pistol here, I'd answer you so that you should never ask again!"
Kyllikki shuddered—a chill sense of utter helplessness came over her. She was shamed and insulted, her bridal wreath trampled underfoot, and she herself here alone with a man who raved and threatened furiously. She looked at him earnestly, as if trying to read him through. And she felt that here was indeed something great and terrible, on which her future—their future—depended; a single word or gesture on her part might be fatal. Suddenly a thought crossed her mind and the blood rushed to her head.... Could he dare?... Was his anger greater than his love?
Swiftly she decided—now or never, it must be done, or all would be lost. Stepping across to a chest, she opened the lowest drawer and felt for something there ... no ... and she tried the next. A moment after, she rose to her feet and walked firmly over to where Olof stood.
A large, old-fashioned revolver was in her hand; the dark barrel glinted in the light as she laid it on the table.
"There is the thing you wanted. It is loaded. Now, answer me, if you please."
She spoke slowly, putting forth all her strength to keep her voice from trembling. Then stepping back, she stood waiting, her face pale, her eyes fixed on Olof's face.
It was the critical moment. To Kyllikki it seemed endless, as she stood there stiffly, dreading with every breath lest she should fall.
Olof stood motionless, staring at her as at a vision. Once before he had seen her thus—during the ordeal with her father. A stifling fear came over him as he marked the similarity.
"What do you mean—are you trying to drive me mad?" he cried in a choking voice. And tearing his hair, he rushed violently towards the door.
Kyllikki felt the blood coursing warmly through her veins once more.
Olof strode furiously up and down, then came to a standstill before her. His rage flamed up again, and he set himself to play the part of a judge.
"Defy me, would you?" he shouted, pale with anger. "Do you know what you are? A liar, a perjured hypocrite! Do you know what you have done? You have cheated me! You have ruined my wedding night, trampled on my happiness and my future—you have shamed me in the eyes of the world. You are no pure and innocent girl, but a...."
He stopped, breathless, and stood gasping for a moment, then went on brokenly: "But now it is out. Now you shall answer for it all. Do you know a fellow who was here to-night—a wretched little worm with a red rosette in his coat? You know who I mean well enough—deny it if you dare!"
"Yes, I know him well. What of it?"
"Ah, you know him—yes...." He gave a hoarse, nervous laugh. "That ghastly little abortion came to me to-night and told me...."
He stopped, on purpose to torture her the more.
"What did he tell you?" asked Kyllikki breathlessly.
"You know well enough ... that you had given him long ago what should have been mine to-night!"
He stood enjoying the effect of his words: Kyllikki staggered as if struck—exactly as he had intended.
The girl was trembling in every limb. She felt a loathing for the man before her—and for all his sex. These men, that lied about women, or cried out about what was theirs on their wedding night, raved of their happiness, demanding purity and innocence of others, but not of themselves ... she felt that there could be no peace, no reconciliation between them now, only bitterness and the ruin of all they had hoped for together.
"And what then?" she asked coldly, with lifted head.
"What then?" cried Olof wildly. "What...."
"Yes. Go on. That was only one. Are there no more who have told you the same thing?"
"More? My God—I could kill you now!"
"Do!" She faced him defiantly, and went on with icy calm: "And how many girls are there who can say the same of you?"
Olof started as if he had been stabbed. He put his hands to his head, and strode violently up and down, muttering wildly: "Kill you—yes, kill you and myself too, kill, kill, kill...."
So he went on for a while, then, flinging himself down on the sofa, he tore open his coat, snatched off the white rosette he wore, and threw it down, crying out in agony: "Why must I suffer like this? Was there ever such a wedding night? It is hell, hell...!"
Kyllikki stood calmly watching him. She was gradually feeling more sure of herself now. At last she moved towards him.
"Do you want me to love you?" she said quietly. "Or must I hate you and despise you? You listen to the stories of a drunken fool, instead of asking the one person in the world you should trust; you give me no explanation when I ask you. Is it any wonder, after all, that the man should have said what he did—to let you taste for once a drop of the poison you have poured out for who knows how many others? As for him, I knew him when we were children—there was some talk of our being married, years ago. He was five years older than I, and was too young then to know of any harm in an occasional caress. More than that never—though it seems in his drunken wickedness he tried to make out there was."
"Kyllikki, is it true?" cried Olof, springing to his feet.
"It is true. I am still pure, but you—have you the right to ask a pure woman to be your wife?"
"Have I the right...." he began haughtily; but the words died on his lips, and he sank back on the sofa, covering his face with his hands, as if to keep out visions of dread.
"It would have been only just," Kyllikki went on, "if it had been as you believed—yes, it should have been so! And you knew it—and so you stormed and threatened to kill me!"
She paused for a moment; Olof quailed under her glance.
"Pure and innocent," she continued; "yes, that is what you ask, that is your right. But have you for one moment thought of me? I, who am innocent and pure—what is given to me in return?"
"You are torturing me," answered Olof, wringing his hands. "I know, I know—and I have thought of you too.... Oh...."
"Thought of me?—yes, perhaps you have, now and again. There was something of it in your letter—you felt it then. And I took it as a prayer for forgiveness, and I could have faced it all as it was—I was thinking more of you than of myself. But now...."
"O God—this is madness!" cried Olof, his voice choking with sobs. "Is this the end?... And this night, this night that I have looked forward to in my brightest dreams—this new dawn that was to be ... crushed, crushed, a trampled wreath and veil ... and this is my wedding night!"
He flung himself face downward on the sofa, sobbing violently.
"Your wedding night?" said Kyllikki softly. "Your wedding night? How many such have you not had before? But mine...." Her voice broke. "Oh, mine has never been, and never will be, never...."
She burst into a violent fit of weeping, and sank trembling to a seat.
And the bridal chamber echoed with sounds of woe, with utterances of misery that might have called the very walls to pity.
* * * * *
Olof wakened with a start; moving blindly, he had stumbled against her, and at the touch of her body he flung himself on his knees before her and hid his face in her lap.
"Kill me!" he moaned. "Forgive me and then kill me and make an end."
His passionate outburst seemed to calm her; she sat still, and her tears subsided.
"Speak to me!" cried Olof again. "If you cannot forgive me, then kill me, at least—or must I do it myself?"
But Kyllikki made no answer, only bent forward and, slipping her hands beneath his arms, drew him up, softly and slowly, and pressed him closer to her.
A sudden warmth filled him, and he threw his arms round her gratefully, as a child might do.
"Crush me, then, crush me to death, and I have all I asked for!"
But she did not speak, only held him closer. And so they lay in each other's arms, like children, worn out with weeping.
"Olof," said Kyllikki at last, freeing herself, "when you wrote, you said you did not ask me to share joy and happiness, but to work and suffer with you."
"Ay, then," said Olof bitterly. "And even then I still hoped for happiness."
"But, don't you see.... To-night, it is just that. Our first suffering together."
"It has ruined all!"
"Not all—only what we had hoped for to-night. All the rest is as it was."
"No, no, do not try to deceive yourself and me. And for myself—what do I care now? I have deserved it all—but you, you...."
"Say no more, Olof. Let this be ended now and never speak of it again. See, I have forgotten it already."
"All ... you...."
"Yes, all—for your sake. Oh, let us be content! No one in all the world can ever have all they hoped and wished for. And if we cannot have our wedding night as lovers—let us at least be friends and comrades now."
"Comrades? ... yes, in misery," sighed Olof. And they drew together in a close embrace; two suffering creatures, with no refuge but each other.
* * * * *
"Olof," whispered Kyllikki after a while, "we must go to rest now—you are worn out."
Both glanced at the white bridal bed—and each turned in dismay to the other, reading each other's thought.
"Can't we—can't we sleep here on the sofa?—it's nearly morning," said Kyllikki timidly.
Olof grasped her hand and pressed it to his lips without a word.
Kyllikki went to fetch some coverings. As she did so, she caught sight of something lying on the table, and keeping her back turned to Olof, she picked up the thing and put it back in the drawer. Olof's eyes followed her with a grateful glance.
But as she touched the pillows and the white linen she had worked with such hopes and kisses and loving thoughts for this very night, she broke down, and stood with quivering shoulders, fumbling with the bedclothes to hide her emotion.
Olof felt his eyelids quivering, warm drops fell on his cheek. He rose and stepped softly to her side.
"Kyllikki," he whispered entreatingly, "have you forgiven me—everything?"
"Yes, everything," she answered, smiling through her tears, and threw her arms round his neck. "It was childish of me to cry."
Gratefully, and with a new delight, he pressed her to his heart....
* * * * *
"Olof, don't put out the light yet—let it burn till the morning."
Kyllikki lay stretched on the sofa. Olof nodded, and laid himself down with his head in her lap and his feet on a chair by the side.
And two pairs of darkly glistening eyes fell to whispering together, like lonely stars in a dark autumn sky, while the earth sighed through the gloom.
Olof was a sleep-walker, though he never dared to confess it even to himself. There was something mysterious and terrifying in the thought.
A soul that cannot rest, but goes forth when others sleep, on errands of its own; the body follows, but without consciousness. The eyes are open, but they see only that which the soul is pleased to notice on its way. It will climb like a squirrel to the roof, walk along narrow ridges at a giddy height. It will open windows and lean out over black depths, or play with keen-edged weapons as if they were toys. And the onlooker, in his waking senses, shudders at the sight, realising that it is the soul stealing forth on its nightly wanderings.
So it had been with Olof for a long time now—almost from the time when Kyllikki first became his.
The scene of their bridal night was forgotten; neither ever hinted at what had passed. They had tried to fuse with each other in the deep and beautiful relationship which had its roots deep in the soul of both, and in the earnest striving that was to clear and cultivate the ground on which their future should be built.
Olof was proud of his wife; she moved with the beauty of a summer Sunday in their new home—calm and clear-eyed, ever surrounded by a scent of juniper or heather. And he was filled with gratitude, respect, and love for her—for her tender and faithful comradeship.
Then, like a bird of night on silent wings, came this walking in his sleep.
It had happened many times without his knowing it. And still he refused to believe it, though he had more than once been on the point of waking to full consciousness. And he was glad that Kyllikki seemed to suspect nothing—for she said no word. He dreaded most of all the hour when she should wake and speak to him reproachfully: "Are my arms not warm enough to hold you; can your soul not find rest in my soul's embrace?"
Of late, the mere thought of this had made him restless. And to guard against it, he had thrown himself with redoubled energy into his work, as if life depended on the ditching and draining of a marsh. And gradually there grew out of this a new and far greater project, in which the entire neighbourhood would share.
* * * * *
It was in the quiet hour of dusk, when Olof had just come home from his work, and the walls of the room seemed whispering expectantly.
Silently as the dusk, Kyllikki stole into his opened arms, her eyes asking what he had to tell, and pouring out her own thoughts and feelings.
Olof laughed, but did not try to meet the innermost depth of her eyes; after a little, he ceased to look at her at all, but turned his gaze far off, as if looking out over the work of the day.
A little while passed thus.
Almost unconsciously Olof lifted one hand and loosened the plaits of his wife's hair, letting the long tresses fall freely over her shoulders. Smiling and looking into far distance, he passed his hand through the soft waves, and wrapping the ends about his fingers, clasped her waist.
"My own love," he whispered, gazing at her as through a veil, and bending to touch her lips.
And as they kissed, Kyllikki felt his arm tremble. Tenderly she looked into his eyes, but started in wonder at their strange expression—they seemed wandering far off.
And the dark forebodings that had long oppressed her filled her now with a sudden dread. The more she looked at him, the more she felt this fear—at last it was almost more than she could bear.
It was as if the soul that looked out of his eyes had suddenly vanished, leaving only a body that stiffened in a posture of embrace.
She trembled from head to foot, her whole body seemed turned to ice. Suddenly she tore herself away, and sank down on a seat; Olof stood without moving, as if turned to stone.
In a single moment, something terrible had passed between them, which neither dared to speak of, but which showed plainly in their eyes. A gulf seemed to have opened before their feet, filled with strange and horrible creatures, all waving tentacles and ghastly staring eyes.
Kyllikki covered her face with her hands as if to shut out the sight.
"Olof—your soul, your soul ..." she moaned, like a little child.
Olof stood as hovering on the verge of sleep and waking. But at sight of her trembling figure he seemed to come to himself, and tried to break loose from the spell.
"Kyllikki...!" he said imploringly.
She sat up, sobbing, and gazed at him as at one whom she did not know.
"Kyllikki, poor child!" he said brokenly, and sat down by her side. But his own voice sounded strange in his ears, and he could say no more—he felt as if he were a ghost, not daring to speak to a living human creature.
At sight of his unspoken misery, Kyllikki felt her own dread rise up stronger than ever.
"I knew the suffering would come," she said mournfully. "So many have had their place in your heart that I could not hope to fill it all myself at first. But I love you so, and I felt so strong, I thought I could win my way into it little by little until it was all mine ... and now...." She broke off, and fell to sobbing anew.
Olof would have given anything to speak to her then, but found no words.
"And it is so terrible to see it all and be helpless," she went on. "You are a wanderer still—and I cannot hold you ... you leave me—for those that wait for you...."
"O Heaven!" cried Olof in agony. "Kyllikki, don't—don't speak like that. You know I do not care for any other—would not be with any other but you."
"But you go—even against your will. And they come towards you smiling. I am all alone—and they are so many. And they must win—for I can give no more than one woman can. But they are for ever whispering to you of what a woman can give but once in her life—each in her own way...."
"Kyllikki!" Olof broke in imploringly.
But she went on unheeding, pouring out her words like a stream in flood-time.
"And they hate me because I thought to keep you for myself alone. And while you lie in my arms, they come smiling and whispering and thread their arms between us and offer you their lips...."
"Kyllikki!" he cried again, and grasped at her hand like a drowning man.
"And then—then it is no longer me you hold in your arms, but those others; not my lips, but theirs, you kiss...." She tore her hand away, and broke out weeping anew.
Olof sat as if turned to stone. The thing was said—it was as if a secret curse was for ever dogging his footsteps, and spreading poison all around.
Kyllikki's despair gathered and grew like an avalanche. What a blind self-deceit their life had been! How they had hoped and dreamed—with a gulf of naked hopelessness on every side!
"If only I had—what I have hoped for these last two years, then I could bear it all. For that—none could rob me of that! But now—I know why it has not come. And now there is no hope even of that!"
And she groaned aloud.
Olof felt as if a dagger's thrust had pierced the tenderest nerve of an already aching wound. He had tried to comfort her, though he himself had long since lost all hope. The fault could only lie with him—and now he understood! He felt himself crushed by a weight of despair, and sat there staring before him, without a word.
Kyllikki grew calmer after a while, and looked up. The silence of the place came to her now for the first time, and with it a new dread. She turned to Olof, and at sight of his face, drawn with despair, and darkly shadowed in the gloom, she realised what her words must have meant to him.
"Olof—dear!" she cried, taking his hand. "What have I done? I did not mean to reproach you. It might be my fault as well—it must be mine more than yours...."
But Olof sat motionless as before, save for a shiver that now and then passed through his frame.
And Kyllikki, seeing him thus, felt her own trouble fade; a wave of unspeakable tenderness and affection came over her.
"Don't—Olof, you must not be miserable for that," she said earnestly. "Oh, how could I ever say it—how could I be so thoughtless and selfish and cruel...?"
"No," said Olof—"it was not that. You could not help it. You were my conscience, that is all—as you must ever be, or you would not be the friend you are."
"Don't say that, Olof—it was just that I forgot. We are friends—and the one thing that can make and keep us friends is to toil and suffer together—Olof, together!"
Gently she drew closer to him, and threw her arms about him.
"Don't you see?" she went on softly. "It's all because I love you so. I want you for myself, all for myself. I will not let you go—no, you shall look at me. I will drive them away, all of them, if they try to come between us; oh, I am strong enough, I know. You are mine, Olof, do you hear? All mine—mine.... Oh, why do you sit there so? Speak to me, Olof!"
Her passionate earnestness burned like bright flames about him, gradually warming his heart to life again.
"Kyllikki, how good you are!" he said, and his eyes glistened as he spoke. "You are all I have in life—without you, I should be lost. If only—if only I could be sure of one thing...."
"What is it—tell me, Olof...?"
"That—that you do not despise me, but trust me, that you believe I only care to be yours."
"Trust you?—indeed I do," said Kyllikki. "I know we are both striving toward the same end. But there are enemies that are always on the watch. We must beat them—and we will! And I am yours—all yours—as the night when you said good-bye to Kohiseva. And you are mine—all mine ... and then, Olof—then it will come—the one thing I must have to live for...."
OUT OF THE PAST
"KIRKKALA, 7 May 1899."
"Dearest,—You will not be angry because I write to you? How could you, you who are so good! I would not have written, but I must, for there is so much to tell you. It is spring now, as it was then, and it has brought with it such a longing that I must turn to you, speak to you—and then I can wait again till next spring. You must have known that I have been with you—surely you felt it? And now here I am, having learned by chance where you are.
"Do you remember the story I told you? About the girl and her lover and the mark on her breast? And what I asked for then, and you gave me? I have often wondered since whether, perhaps, you might have misunderstood it all—when I was so serious and thoughtful about it—if you thought I was not certain of myself, not sure that I should always be yours, as I wished to be. But it was not so, dear Olof; I knew myself well enough even then, though not so deeply as I do now. How strong and deep love is! I read once in a poem—surely you know it too:
"'The lightning stroke falls swifter than breath, But the tree that is struck bears the mark till its death.'"
And so it is—there is no more to add; it is as if written by the finger of God. And so it must be, or what would our love be worth?
"But it is not all who understand it, even the half. Human beings are so strange—wondering and asking always—people ask, for instance, why I am always so lonely.... They cannot see that I am not lonely at all.
"Olof, if you knew all I have felt and suffered in these years! I hardly know if I dare tell you. But I must—I only turn to you now to say it all, so that I may feel easier after. I have longed for you so—more than I can ever say; I wonder how I have been able to live at all. Olof, Olof, do not look at me! I have only come to whisper a little in your ear.... I have had such dreadful thoughts. As if someone were always behind me whispering, 'Look, there is a knife—it is a friend; take it and press it deep in your breast—it will feel like the softest touch of the evening wind. Look, the river is in flood....' And I have hardly dared to pass by the well, for it looked up at me so strangely with its dark eye. And I know I should have given way if you had not saved me. When I thought how you would feel if you heard what I had done, I seemed to see you so clearly; you looked at me reproachfully, only looked at me without a word, and I felt ashamed that I had ever thought of what would cause you sorrow. And you nodded, and forgave me, and all was well again.
"Then I took to hoping that some miracle should bring you back to me. I hoped something might happen to you, so that I could buy your life with mine. You might be bitten by a snake—it does happen sometimes. Coming up one night with the lumbermen, and then next morning the news would be all over the place, how you had been bitten, and were on the point of death; and I would hurry down with the rest to where you were, and bend down beside you, and press my lips to the place and draw the poison out. And then I could feel it passing with your blood into my veins, in a great wave of happiness. And soon I should sink down beside you on the grass; but you would be saved, and you would know I had been true to you until death.
"So I waited year after year. Then I wanted you to be ill—very, very ill for a long time, and weak, till your heart could hardly beat at all for want of blood, and you lay in a trance. Then the doctors would say, if anyone would give their blood he might come to life again. But no one could be found, for there were only strangers there. Then I hear about it, and come quickly, and the doctors start at once, for there is no time to be lost. And they draw off my blood and let it flow into your body, and it acts at once, and you move a little, though you are still in a trance. 'A little more,' say the doctors—'see, the girl is smiling; it will do her no harm.' And they only see that I smile, and do not know how weak I am already. And when you wake, I am cold and pale already, but happy as a bride, and you kiss me on the lips like a lover. For now I am your bride, and one with you for ever, and I cannot die, for my blood lives in you!
"But all this was only dreams. You were not ill, nor bitten by a snake, and at last I did not even know where you were. And then I wanted to die, for I felt so weak. And I waited for it day after day and month after month—I had already written to say good-bye to you. But death did not come—I had to go on living.
"I have been so ill, Olof—it is my heart. Perhaps I am too sensitive; they called me a dreamer when I was a child. And even now that I am older they have said the same. But how could I ever forget you, and the hours that were the confession and communion of my whole life? How could I forget those evenings when I sat at your feet and looked into your eyes? Olof, I can feel it all still, and tremble at the thought of it.
"You must forgive me all this. It feels easier now that I have spoken to you and told you about it all—how I still feel, grateful to you for all you gave me then. I was very childish and poor then, and had nothing to give you in return—now, afterwards, I could perhaps have given you something too. I should have been so happy if we could have been together always; earth would have been like heaven, and none but angels everywhere. And even now I can be so happy, though I only have you in secret. Secretly I say good-night to you, and kiss you, and no one knows that you rest every night in my arms. And, do you know, Olof, there is one thing that is so strange, I hardly know what it means. Now, just lately, I have felt sometimes that you were really here, your living self, sitting beside me and whispering that I was yours, your love, your friend. And it makes me so happy—but I always cry afterwards.
"There was one thing more—but I can't think what it was. Something about ... yes, now I remember. The greatest and loveliest of all, that I asked you for Shall I tell you? The miracle has happened, though no one knows about it. You gave it me after all, that spring when I was so ill. And I could not live without it. He is two years old now—oh, if you could only see him! His eyes and his voice—they are just your very own. Do not be anxious about him. I will be so careful, and see that he grows up a fine man. I have sewed every stitch of his clothes myself, and he looks like a prince—there never was such a child. We are always together, and talking of you. I am sorry for mother sometimes; she looks so strangely at me, and says I go about talking to myself—but how could she know of my prince and his father, and why I talk? Talking to myself, she says. But I am talking to the child all the time.
"There, and what more was I going to say? I can't remember now. I feel so much better now I have told you all about it. And now the summer is coming—I always feel happier then. It was raining before, but now the sun has come out and the birds are singing. And so good-bye, my dearest, my sunshine, my summer.—Your own CLEMATIS.
"Do not write to me—I am better as I am. I know you have not forgotten me, that you could not forget ... and that is all I ask."
Olof was growing uneasy—a feeling of insecurity had come over him. The air seemed full of mysterious forces, whispering together and joining in alliance against him.
It had all looked clear and simple enough before. No one had ever stood in his way or threatened his plans. But now something was threatening him—something unknown, mysterious, but which he could not help feeling all the time.
He made every effort to resist—to gather arms and allies against what was to come. His project for draining the marsh was the first thing; he went about from one homestead to another, talking to the men one by one, and trying to interest them in the idea. A general meeting was held, and he made a great speech, putting out all his powers of persuasion; his voice rang with a convincing strength, and his words carried weight. And to begin with, all went well enough; it was agreed that an expert should be called in to investigate the whole question, and work out the probable cost of the undertaking.
But then came a period of waiting and inactivity, which sapped his strength anew. He had to seek about for some fresh task, for new difficulties to meet and overcome, in order to regain his confidence in himself. And so for a week he roved about in the forest between his own and the neighbouring parishes.
At last he found what he sought—the line for a new road, better and quicker than the old one.
It was a fine idea, that no one could deny. It would be a great gain to all in Hirviyoki, especially for those in the outlying parts; it meant a saving of miles on their way to the railway, the mills, and other centres.
And so once more Olof went from house to house, seeking adherents among the most influential men, so as to crush opposition before the matter was taken up for general discussion. He started with those nearest at hand, working gradually farther out.
"Is this Inkala?" asked Olof of a serving-girl, as he entered the courtyard; he did not know the place, nor who lived there.
"This is Inkala—yes," answered the girl.
"Is the master at home?"
"No; he went off to Muurila this morning."
"H'm. And when's he coming back?"
"Don't know at all. But maybe mistress'll know. If you'd go in by the front way, I'll tell her."
Olof walked up the front steps.
Hardly had he entered the room when a slender, fair-haired woman appeared from within.
"Good-day to ..." Olof began; but the greeting died on his lips, and a shiver passed through his body.
The woman stopped still; her lips moved, but uttered no word.
Stiffly, uneasily, they looked at each other. A glimpse of the past, a sequence of changes, things new and things familiar—the vision of a moment, seen in a flash.
A warm flush spread over the woman's cheeks, and she stepped forward without hesitation to greet the newcomer.
"Welcome, Olof," she said, with frank kindness, though her voice trembled slightly. "And is it really you? Sit down.'"
But Olof stood still, unable to recover himself.
"I dare say you're surprised to—to find me here," went on the woman, trying to speak easily and naturally, though her features and the look in her eyes revealed a certain emotion. "I have been here for four years now." She stopped, and cast down her eyes in confusion.
"Really—four years, is it as long as that...?" Olof stammered out the words awkwardly, and could say no more.
"But you've heard no news of me, I suppose, and my being here. I knew a little about you, though—that you had come back and were living near...."
"Yes, yes.... No, I had no idea ... I came prepared to find only strangers, and then ... to meet you here ... so far from...."
"Yes, it is a long way from my home." The woman grasped eagerly at something to talk of. "And it's all so different here, though it's not so far, after all, counting the miles. It was very strange and new at first, of course, but now I like it well enough. And we often go over to the old place, and father and mother come to see us here...."
"Yes, yes.... And how are they at home? Your mother and father?" Olof asked, with a ring of pleasant recollection in his voice.
"Finely, thank you. Father was bad for a time last winter, but he's got over it now, or nearly...."
She broke off and glanced at the door. It was thrust open a little, and a child's head looked in.
She stepped hastily across the room. "What do you want in here? Can't you see here are visitors—and you with your dirty overall on?"
"I wanted to see," said the little man stubbornly, with childish insistence, and clung to his mother.
Olof looked at the child as at a vision.
The woman stood, pale and confused, holding the boy by the hand.
"Come along, then, and say good-day," she stammered at last, hardly knowing what she did.
The boy came forward, and stood holding Olof's knees, looking up into his face.
Child and man gazed at each other without a word or movement, as if each were seeking for some explanation.
"I haven't seen you before," said the child at last. "Do you live a long way away?"
Olof felt himself trembling. The child's first words had set his heart beating wildly.
"But you mustn't stay here, dear," said the woman hastily, and led the boy away. "Go into the next room a little—mother's coming soon."
The child obeyed without a word, but in the doorway he turned, and again looked wonderingly at his mother and the strange man....
* * * * *
Olof was gone; the young mistress of Inkala sat alone in her room.
Thinking it over now, it seemed like a dream. Was it indeed Olof she had seen? Or had she been dreaming in broad daylight?
It had seemed natural enough at first. Both were surprised, of course, at the unexpected meeting, but soon they had found themselves talking calmly enough.
But the entry of the child had brought a touch of something strange and unspeakable—it seemed to change them all at once to another footing, bringing up a reckoning out of the past.
True, she had wondered now and again if fate would ever bring her face to face with Olof again—if he would ever see the child. But she had put the thought aside as painful to dwell upon.
And now, here they were, those two; no stranger but would at once have taken them for father and son, though in truth there was no kinship between them.
It was as if she were suddenly called upon to answer for her life.
First it was her son that questioned her, standing in the doorway, looking at both with his innocent eyes.
And then—a triple reckoning—to Olof, to her husband, and to God.
Until that day, her secret had been known to none but God and herself. And now—he knew it, he, the one she had resolved should never know.
And the third stood there too, like one insistent question, waiting to know....
She would have told him, frankly and openly, as she herself understood it. How she had longed for him and the thought of him, and never dreamed that she could ever love another! Until at last he came—her husband. How good and honest and generous he had been—willing to take her, a poor cottage girl, and make her mistress of the place. And how she herself had felt so weak, so bitterly in need of friendship and support, until at last she thought she really loved him.
No, she could not tell him that—it would have been wrong every way—as if she had a different explanation for each.
And to Olof she said only: "I loved him, it is true. But our first child—you saw yourself. It's past understanding. It must have been that I could not even then forget—that first winter. I can find no other way...."
Olof sat helplessly, as in face of an inexplicable riddle.
Then she went on, speaking now to God, while Olof was pondering still.
"You know ... you know it all! I thought I had freed myself from him, but it was not so. My heart was given to him, and love had marked it with his picture, so that life had no other form for me. And then, when I loved again, and our first-born lay beneath my heart.... All that was in my thoughts that, time ... and after, when the child was to be born ... the struggle in my mind ... how I did not always wish myself it should be otherwise—dearly as I have paid for it since...."
And at last, in a whisper, she spoke to her husband:
"It was terrible—terrible. For your sake, because you had been so good—you, the only one I love. It was as if I were faithless to you, and yet I know my heart was true. I would have borne the secret alone, that is why I have never spoken of it to you before. But now I must—and it hurts me that any should have known it before."
Olof was waiting—she could see it in his eyes.
"You know, I need not tell you how it has made me suffer," she said, turning towards him. "And when the second time came, and I was again to be a mother, I wept and prayed in secret—and my prayer was heard. It was a girl—and her father's very image. And after that I felt safe, and calm again...."
She marked how Olof sighed, how the icy look seemed to melt from his eyes.
And she herself felt an unspeakable tenderness, a longing to open her heart to him. Of all she had thought of in those years of loneliness—life and fate and love.... Had he too, perhaps, thought of such things? And what had he come to in the end? She herself felt now that when two human beings have once been brought together by fate, once opened their hearts fully to each other, it is hard indeed for either to break the tie—hardest of all for the woman. And first love is so strong—because one has dreamed of it and waited for it so long, till like a burning glass it draws together all the rays of one's being, and burns its traces ineffaceably upon the soul....
But his tongue was tied, as if they had been altogether strangers during those past years; as if they had nothing, after all, to say to each other but this one thing. And it was of this he was thinking now—with thoughts heavy as sighs.
"Life is so—and what is done cannot be undone—there is no escape...."
Those were Olof's words—all that he found to say to her in return.
"Escape? No! All that has once happened sets its mark on us, and follows us like a shadow; it will overtake us some day wherever we may go—I have learned that at least, and learned it in a way that is not easy to forget."
"You—have you too...?" Again she felt that inexpressible tenderness, the impulse to draw nearer to him. How much they would have to say to each other—the thoughts and lessons of all those years! She knew it well enough for her own part, and from his voice, too, she knew it was the same. And yet, it could not be. They seemed so very near each other, but for all that wide apart; near in the things of the past, but sundered inevitably in the present. Their hearts must be closed to each other—it showed in their eyes, and nothing could alter that.
... What happened after she hardly knew. Had they talked, or only thought together? She remembered only how he had risen at last and grasped her hand.
"Forgive me," he said, with a strange tremor in his voice, as if the word held infinitely much in itself.
And she could only stammer confusedly in return: "Forgive...!"
She hardly knew what it was they had asked each other to forgive, only that it was something that had to come, and was good to say, ending and healing something out of the past, freeing them at last each from the other....
One thing she remembered, just as he was going. She had felt she must say it then—a sincere and earnest thought that had often been in her mind.
"Olof—I have heard about your wife. And I am so glad she is—as she is. It was just such a wife you needed ... it was not everyone could have filled her place...."
Had she said it aloud? She fancied so—or was it perhaps only her eyes that had spoken? It might be so. One thing was certain—he had understood it, every word—she had read so much in his eyes.
And then he had gone away—hurriedly, as one who has stayed too long.
The cat is sitting on the threshold, licking her paws.
But Olof sits deep in thought, whittling at the handle of a spade. A stillness as in church—no sound but the rasp of the knife blade on the wood, and the slow ticking of a clock.
Olof works away. The wood he cuts is clean and white, his shirt is clean and white—Kyllikki had washed it. Kyllikki has gone out.
The cat is making careful toilet, as for a great occasion.
Already steps are heard outside.
The door creaks, the cat springs into the middle of the room in a fright; Olof looks up from his work.
Enters a young woman, elegantly dressed, her hair town-fashion up on her head, under a coquettish summer hat—a scornful smile plays about the corners of her mouth.
She stands hesitating a moment, as if uncertain what to say.
"Good-day," she says at last, with assumed familiarity, and taking a hasty step forward, offers her hand.
Olof scans her in silence from head to foot—surely he should know her?—and yet, who can she be...? He will not recognise her.
"Aha! You look surprised! Don't know me—don't you? Your own darling!'" She laughs harshly, contemptuously.
"Or perhaps you have seen so many others since—rowans and berries and flowers—that you can't, remember one from another?"
Olof's hand trembles, and his face turns white as the sleeves of his shirt.
The woman laughs again boldly, and flings herself on the sofa in a careless pose.
"Well, here we are again—staring at each other—what? Didn't use to stare that way, did we? What do you say?"
Olof has fallen into a seat; he looks at her, but makes no answer.
"And your princess—is she at home, may I ask?"
"No!" Olof answers with an angry ring in his voice.
The woman marks it, and draws herself up, as if in answer to a challenge.
"Good! I've no business with her. But I've something to say to you. And maybe it's best for her she's away. She'd not be over pleased to see me, I fancy." The words shot like venom from her tongue—a sting from laughing lips.
Her callousness seems to freeze him—while his blood boils at the insult to Kyllikki. He is about to speak: "Say what you will, but not an evil word of her!"—when the woman goes on:
"Well, it's no good sitting here solemn as an owl! I just thought I'd look you up—it's a long time since we met, isn't it? Let's have a little talk together—talk of love, for instance. I've learned a deal about that myself since the old days."
Olof was all ice now—the bold, scornful look in her eyes, and her short, bitter laugh froze every kindlier feeling in him.
Then suddenly the scornful smile vanishes from her face.
"Curse you all!" she cries wildly. "Oh, I know what men are now!" She stamps her foot violently. "Beasts—beasts, every one of you—only that some wear horns and others not, and it makes but little difference after all....
"Ay, you may stare! You're one of them yourself—though maybe just so much above the ruck of them that I'm willing to waste words on you. Listen to me!" She springs to her feet and moves towards him. "I hate you and despise you every one. Oh, I could tear the eyes out of every man on this earth—and yours first of all!"
A wild hatred flames in her big brown eyes, her face is contorted with passion; she is more like a fury than a human being.
"And as for your love ..." she went on, flinging herself down on the sofa once more. "Ay, you can twitter about it all so prettily, can't you?—till you've tempted us so near that the beast in you can grab us with its claws! Love—who is it you love? Shall I tell you? 'Tis yourselves! You beasts! We're just pretty dolls, and sweet little pets to be played with, aren't we? Until you fall on us with your wolfish lust ... 'tis all you think or care for—just that!"
She spoke with such intensity of feeling that Olof never thought of saying a word in defence—he felt as if he were being lashed and beaten—violently, yet no worse than he deserved.
"Well, why don't you say something? Aren't you going to stand up for your sex? Why don't you turn me out, eh? Fool—like the rest of you! What is it you offer us, tell me that? Your bodies! And what else? Your bodies again—ugh! And sweet words enough as long as you want us; but as soon as you've had your fill—you turn over on the other side and only want to sleep in peace...."
She gave him one long scornful glance, and sat silent for a moment, as if waiting for him to speak.
"Well—what are you sitting there writhing about for like a sick cat? What's the matter now? Oh, you're married, aren't you?—living in the state of holy matrimony ... take a wife and cleave to her ... one flesh, and all the rest of it ... flesh! Ugh! Holy matrimony indeed! As if that could hide the filth and misery of it all! No! Beasts glaring over the fence at what you want—and when it pleases you to break it down, why not? And your wives—shall I tell you what they are to you—what they know they are? The same as we others, no more ... your...."
A dark flush rose to Olof's cheeks, and he broke in violently:
"You ... you...."
"Oh yes, I'm coarse and vulgar and all the rest of it, yes, I know. But what about you men? You're worse than all! Marriage—it's all very well for the children. And even that.... Wasn't it the men that wanted the State to take over all children, what? A pretty thought—leave your young behind you where you please—and the State to look after them. Make love free and beautiful. Oh yes. And we're to have all the pain and trouble—and the State to pay—noble and generous, aren't you? What other beast gave you that grand idea, I wonder? The dogs that run in the streets...?"
Olof sat motionless, watching her passionate outburst as if fascinated. And beneath the ghastly mask he seemed to see the face of a young, innocent girl, with childish, trusting eyes, and....
"No, it's no good your trying that," the woman broke in. "I know what you're thinking of now. You hate me, loathe me, as I am now. And you're asking yourself if it really can be the same little bit of a child that used to sit on your knee and look up to you as if you were God Himself! No—I'm not—there's nothing left but bitterness. Can't you understand? Oh, we're coarse and sour and harsh and all the rest—all that you've made us. But I'll tell you what we are besides—ourselves, ourselves, for all that!"
She rose up from the sofa, and crossing the room, sat down on a chair close to where Olof was seated. Then, lowering her voice a little, she went on, as if striving with words and look to penetrate his soul:
"We are women—do you know what that means? And we long for love—all of us, good or bad—or, no, there is neither good nor bad among us, we are alike. We long for you, and for love. But how? Ah, you should know! Answer me, as you would to God Himself: of all the women you have known, has any one of them ever craved your body? Answer, and speak the truth!"
"No—no ... it is true!" stammered Olof confusedly.
"Good that you can be honest at least. And that is just what makes the gulf between us. For you, the body is all and everything, but not for us. We can feel the same desire, perhaps—after you have taught us. But the thing we long for in our innermost heart—you never give us. You give us moments of intoxication, no more. And we are foolish enough to trust you. We are cheated of our due, but we hope on; we come to you and beg and pray for it, until at last we realise that you can give us nothing but what in itself, by itself, only fills us with loathing...."
Olof breathed hard, as in a moment's respite at the stake, with the lash still threatening above his head.
"Yes, that is your way. You take us—but why will you never take us wholly? You give us money, or fine clothes, a wedding ring even—but never yourselves, never the thing we longed for in you from the first. You look on love as a pastime only; for us, it is life itself. But you never understand, only wash your hands of it all, and go your own ways self-satisfied as ever."
Olof was ashy pale and his eyelids quivered nervously.
The woman's face had lost its scornful look, the hardness of her features had relaxed. She was silent a moment, and when she spoke again, seemed altogether changed. She spoke softly and gently, with a tremor in her voice.
"Even you, Olof, even you do not understand. I know what you are thinking now. You ask, what right have I to reproach you, seeing that I was never yours as—as the others were? It is true, but for all that you were more closely bound to me, with a deeper tie, than with the others. What do I care for them? They do not matter—it is nothing to me if they ever existed or not. But you and I—we were united, though perhaps you cannot understand.... Olof! When I sat close to you, in your arms, I felt that my blood belonged to you, and that feeling I have never altogether lost. It is you I have been seeking through all these years—you, and something to still the longing you set to grow in my soul. Men fondled me with coarse hands, and had their will of me—and I thought of your caresses; it was with you, with you I sinned!"
The sweat stood out in beads on Olof's brow—the torture was almost more than he could bear. "I know, I know!" he would have said. "Say no more—I know it all!" But he could not frame a single word.
She moved nearer, watching him closely.
And slipping to the floor beside him, she clasped his knees.
"Olof—don't look like that!" she cried. "Don't you see, it is not you alone I mean. Tear out your eyes—no, no, I didn't mean it, Olof! Oh, I am mad—we are all mad, we have sinned.... Do not hate me, do not send me away. I am worthless now, I know, but it was you I loved, Olof, you and no other."
Olof writhed in horror, as if all his past had come upon him suddenly like a monster, a serpent that was crushing him in its toils.
"No, let me stay a little yet, do not send me away. Only a moment, Olof, and I will go. No, I will not reproach you—you did not know me then. And I knew nothing—how should we have known?"
She was silent for a moment, watching his face. Then she went on:
"Tell me one thing—those others—have any of them come to you—since? Ah, I can see it in your eyes. None who have known you could ever forget. If only you had been like all the rest—we do not long for them when they are gone. But you were—you. And a woman must ever come back to the man that won her heart. We may think we hate him, but it is not true. And when life has had its way with us, and left us crushed and soiled—then we come back to him, as—how shall I say it?—as to holy church—no, as pilgrims, penitents, to a shrine ... come back to look for a moment on all that was pure and good ... to weep over all that died so soon...."
Her voice broke. She thrust aside the piece of wood he had been holding all the time, and sent it clattering to the floor; then grasping his hands, she pressed them to her eyes, and hid her head in his lap.
Olof felt the room darkening round him. He sat leaning forward, with his chin on his breast; heavy tears dropped from his eyes like the dripping of thawed snow from the eaves in spring.
For a long while they sat thus. At last the woman raised her head, and looked with tear-stained eyes into his.
"Olof, do not be harsh with me. I had to come—had to ease my heart of all that has weighed it down these years past. I have suffered so. And when I see you now, I understand you must have your own sorrows to bear. Forgive me all the cruel things I said. I had to say it all, that too, or I could not have told you anything; I wanted to cry the moment I saw you. Your wife—did I say anything? Oh, I do not hate her, you must not think I hate her. I can't remember what I said. But I am happier now, easier now that I have seen you."
Her glance strayed from his face, and wandered vaguely into distance, as if she had been sitting alone in the twilight, dreaming.
"Olof," she said after a while, turning to him with a new light in her eyes, "do you know, a pilgrimage brings healing. It is always so in books—the pilgrims are filled with hope, and go back with rejoicing to their home.... Home...!" She started, as if wakening at the word.
"Should I go home, I wonder? What do you say, Olof? Father and mother—they would be waiting for me. I know they would gladly take me back again, in spite of all. Do you know, Olof, I have not been home for two years now. I have been.... Oh no, I cannot, bear to think.... Yes, I will go home. Only let me sit here just a little while, and look into your eyes—as we used to do. I will be stronger after that."
And she sat looking at him. But Olof stared blankly before him, as at some train of shadowy visions passing before his eyes.
"You have changed, Olof, since I saw you last," murmured the woman at his feet. "Have you suffered?..."
Olof did not answer. He pressed his lips together, and great tears gathered anew in his eyes.
"Oh, life is cruel!" she broke out suddenly, and hid her face in his lap once more.
For a moment she lay thus; deep, heavy silence seemed to fill the room. At last she looked up.
"I am going now," she said. "But, Olof, are we...?" She looked at him, hoping he would understand.
He took both her hands in his. "Are you going—home?" he asked earnestly.
"Yes, yes. But tell me—are we...?"
"Yes, yes." He uttered the words in a sigh, as if to himself. Then, pressing her hand, he rose to his feet.
Staggering like a drunken man, he followed her to the door, and stood looking out after her as she went. Then the night mist seemed to rise all about him, swallowing up everything in its clammy gloom.
He sits deep in thought. Not a sound in the room.
Then a knocking....
The man starts, rises to his feet, and stares about him with wide eyes, as if unable to recognise his surroundings. He glances towards the door, and a shudder of fear comes over him—are they coming to torture him again?
Furiously he rushes to the door and flings it wide. "Come in, then!" he cries. "Come in—as many as you please! Rags or finery, sane or mad, in—in! I've hung my head long enough! Bid them begone—and they come again—well, come in and have done. Bring out your reckoning, every one. Here's what's left of me—come and take your share!"
But he calls to the empty air. And his courage fails as he looks into the blank before him—as a warrior seeking vainly for enemies in ambush. Slowly he closes the door, and goes back again.
"Ghosts, eh? Invisible things? Come in, then—I'm ready."
And he faces about once more.
Again the knocking—and now he perceives a little bird seated outside on the window-sill, peeping into the room.
"You, is it? Away—off to the woods with you! This is no place for innocent things. Or what did you think to find? Greedy, evil eyes, and groans, and hearts dripping blood. To the woods, and stay there, out of reach of all this misery!"
But the bird lifts its head, and looks into his eyes.
"Do you hear? Away, go away!"
He taps at the window-pane himself. The bird flies off.
* * * * *
Once more cold fear comes over him; his pulses halt in dread.
"Not yet—not yet—no! One by one, to tear me slowly to pieces. Shadows of vengeance, retribution, following everywhere; burning eyes glaring at me from behind, fear that makes me tremble at every sound, and start in dread at every stranger's face. And if I forget for a moment, and think myself free, one of them comes again ... ghosts, ghosts...."
He sat down heavily.
"Why do they follow me still? Is it not enough that I have lived like a hunted beast so long? Because I loved you once? And what did we swear to each other then—have you forgotten? Never to think of each other but with thankfulness for what each had given! We were rich, and poured out gold with open hands—why do you come as beggars now? And talk of poverty—as if I were not poorer than any of you all! Or do you come to mourn, to weep with me over all that we have lost?
"But still you come and ask, and ask, as if I were your debtor, and would not pay. Mad thought! I was your poet, and made you songs of love. Life was a poem, and love red flowers between. What use to tell me now that the poem was a promise, the red flowers figures on a score that I must pay? Go, and leave me in peace! I cannot pay! You know—you know I have pawned all I had long since—all, to the last wrack!"
His own thought filled him with new horror; drops of sweat stood out on his forehead.
"And you, that have suffered most of all—what had I left for you? You, a princess among the rest, the only one that never looked up to me humbly, but stepped bravely to meet me as an equal. Yours was the hardest lot of all—for I gave you the dregs of my life, rags that a beggar would despise...."
Suddenly he felt an inward shock; his heart seemed to check for a moment, then went on beating violently; the blood rushed to his head. Again the check, followed by the same racing heart-beat as before....
Instinctively he grasped his wrist to feel his pulse. A few quick beats, a pause, then on again—what is it?
The fear of death was on him now, and he sprang up as if thinking of flight. Gradually the fit passes off; he stands waiting, but it does not return, only a strange feeling of helplessness remains—helplessness and physical fear. He sits down again.
"Was that you, Life, that struck so heavy a blow? Have you come for your reckoning, too? Like an innkeeper, noting this and that upon the score, and calling for payment at last? I should know you by now—I have seen a glimpse of your face before....
"'Tis a heavy book you bring. Well, what shall we take first? That? Yes, of course—it was always the heaviest item with us. My father ... what was it mother told of him? And his father before him....
"Look back, you say? Back along the tracks I made long ago? Good—I look; you go about your business in the proper way, I see. If you had come with sermons, and talk of sin and heaven and hell, I'd leave you to preach alone—none of that for me. I know ... that love is in our flesh and blood, drawing us like a magnet—in our day, none draws back a single step of his way for the fear of sin and hell—there is always time to repent and be forgiven later on! But your book shows our acts on this side, and what comes of them on that—and we stand with bowed heads, seeing how all is written in our own blood."
He stared before him, as if at something tangible and real.
"Yes, there's the book, and there is my account. All these strokes and lines—what's that? Something I can't make out. Here's my road, there are my doings—that I understand. And here are all that I've had dealings with. But this mess of broken lines ... this way and that...? Ah, consequences! Is that it? Well, well.... All these run together at one point—that's clear enough—myself, of course. But these others running out all ways, endlessly.... What's that you say? More consequences, but to others!
"No, no! Not all that! Something of the sort I was prepared for—but all that? Is it always so in your book—is everything set down?"
"All that leaves any trace behind—all acts that make for any consequence!"
"All? But man is a free agent—this does not look like freedom."
"Free to act, yes, but every act knits the fine threads of consequence—that can decide the fate of a life!"
"No—no! Close the book—I have seen enough! Who cares to think of a book with lines and threads of consequence, when fate is kind, and all seems easy going? I laughed at those who wasted their youth in prayer and fasting. And I laughed at the laws of life, for I could take Love, and enjoy it without fear of any tie—I was proud to feel myself free, to know that none had any claim on me—no child could call me father. But now, after many years, come those who speak of ties I never dreamed of. Here was a mother showing me a child—I had never touched her that way, yet you come and tell me there are laws I know nothing of. And when I beg and pray of you to grant me a child for myself and for her to whom it is life and death, you turn your back, and cry scornfully: 'Laugh, and take Love, and enjoy—you have had your will!'"
Again the terrifying sense of physical distress—of something amiss with heart and pulse. He sat waiting for a new shock, wondering if, perhaps, it would be the last ... the end....
The door opened.
"Olof! Here I am at last—am I very late?... Why, what is the matter?... Olof...!"
Kyllikki hurried over to him. With an effort he pulled himself together, and answered calmly, with a smile:
"Don't get so excited—you frightened me! It's nothing ... nothing.... I felt a little giddy for the moment, that was all. I've had it before —it's nothing to worry about. Pass off in a minute...."
She looked at him searchingly. "Olof...?"
"Honestly, it is nothing."
"It must be something to make you look like that. Olof, what is it? I have noticed it before—though you always tried to pass it off...."
"Well, and if it is," he answered impatiently, "it need not worry you."
"Olof, can you say that of anything between us two?"
He was silent for a moment. "Why not," he said at last, "if it is something that could only add needlessly to the other's burden?"
"Then more than ever," answered Kyllikki warmly.
She hurried into the next room and returned with a coverlet.
"You are tired out, Olof—lie down and rest." With tender firmness she forced him to lie down, and spread it over him.
"And now tell me all about it—it's no good trying to put it off with me. You know what I am." She sat down beside him and stroked his forehead tenderly.
Olof was silent for a moment. Then he decided. He would tell her all.
"Yes—I know you," he said softly, taking her hand in his.
* * * * *
It was growing dark when they sat up. Both were pale and shaken with emotion, but they looked at each other with a new light in their eyes, two human souls drawn closer together by hardship and sorrow.
"Stay where you are and rest a little, while I get the supper," said Kyllikki, as Olof would have risen. "And to-morrow—we can begin the new day," she added.
And, stooping down, she kissed him lightly on the brow.
"THE EMPTY HOUSE, 6/9/1900."
"Your letter has just come—Kyllikki, you cannot think how I have been longing for it. I would have sent the girl to the station, only I knew you would not write till it was post day here.
"And you are well—that is the main thing; the only thing I care about these days. 'Strong enough to move mountains'—I can't say the same about myself. I have been having a miserable time. I am sorry I let you go—or, rather, that I sent you. I thought I should feel less anxious about you if you were there, but far from it. Why couldn't we have let it take place here? I am only now beginning to understand how completely we have grown together—I feel altogether helpless without you. If only it would come—and have it over, and you could be home again—you and the boy!
"And then I have something to tell you that I would rather not touch on at all, but we must have no secrets from each other now, not even a thought! It is the old uneasiness—it has been coming over me ever since you went away—as if I could not find rest when you are not near. I cannot get away from a feeling that all is not over yet—that things are only waiting for a favourable moment to break loose again. Try to understand me. You know how I suffered those two years when we prayed in vain for that which is granted to the poorest. And you know how I was almost beyond myself with joy when at last our prayers were heard. But now, when it is only a matter of days before it comes in reality—now, I am all overcome with dread. It will go off all right, the thing itself, I know—you are strong and healthy enough. But there is an avenging God, an invisible hand, that writes its mene tekel at the very hour when joy is at its height. Think, if the one we are waiting for—it is horrible to think of!—if it should be wrong somehow, in body or soul—what could I do then? Nothing, only bow my head and acknowledge that the arm of fate had reached me at last. You cannot think what a dreadful time I had all alone here last evening. I cried and prayed that vengeance might not fall on you and him—the innocent—but on me alone—if all I have suffered up to now is not enough. And then a woodpecker came and sat outside under the window, with its eerie tapping. And a little after came a magpie croaking on the roof, like a chuckling fiend. It made me shudder all over. I dare say you will laugh at my weakness. But it might be one of those mysterious threads of fate. I have seen the like before—and you know how ill and nervous I was ... at the time.... Now I have read your letter I feel calmer, but I know I shall not get over it altogether till I have seen him with my own eyes. Forgive me for writing about this, but I had to tell you. And I know it will not hurt you.
"But then I have been happy as well. I have been getting everything ready in your room—yours and his! You will see it all when you come, but I must tell you a little about it now. I have put down cork matting all over the floor, to keep out the draught. But when I had done it, I had a sort of guilty feeling. Only a bit of matting—nothing much, after all—but it came into my mind that many children have to run about on bare floors where the cold can nip their feet through the cracks. And I felt almost as if I ought to pull it all up again. But, after all, it was for him—and what could be too good for him! I would lay it double in his room!
"I have some good news for you. The Perakorpi road is already begun. And then some bad news—the drainage business looks like being given up altogether—just when everything was ready, and we were going to start. Just quarrelling and jealousy among the people round—real peasant obstinacy, and of course with Tapola Antti at the head. A miserable lot! I should like to knock some of them down. I have fought as hard as I could for it, thundering like Moses at Sinai, and sacrificing the golden calf. The thing must go through at any cost. If they will not back me up, then I will start the work alone. And there are not many of them, anyway—we are to have a meeting again to-morrow.
"And then, when you come home, I can set to work in earnest. If only he may turn out as I hope—then perhaps one day we might work on it together. I wish I had wings—then I should not need to sit sweating over this wretched paper!
"Keep well and strong, and may all good angels watch over you both!—Your impatient....
"Write soon—at once!"
"8 September 1900.
"DEAR,—Your letter was like a beating of your own heart. Yourself in every word—and it showed me a side of your nature that I care for more than I can tell.
"You are anxious—but there is nothing to be anxious about. How could there ever be anything wrong with our child—in body or soul? Of course we must expect more troubles yet—but that has nothing to do with the child! I know you were in low spirits then, but body and soul were sound enough. And I feel so well and strong and happy now myself that it must be passed on to him—even if he were a stone! And then I am all overflowing with love for you and confidence in the future. And I shall feed him with it too, and then he will be the same. All that about the magpie and the woodpecker—you read it wrongly, that is all. The magpie simply came to give you my love—poor thing, she can't help having an ugly voice! And then the woodpecker—don't you see, it was just pecking out the worms from the timber—there must be no worm-eaten timber in his home! That's what it meant.
"But I am glad you wrote about it all the same. For it showed me that he will be as we hope. Now I understand how terribly you must have suffered these last years. You'd never make a criminal, Olof; even I, a woman, could commit a crime with colder courage. Oh, but I love you for it! And you don't know how glad I am to think my child's father is like that. A wakeful, tender conscience—that is the best thing you can give him, though you give him so much.
"I know it will be a boy—and I can feel in my blood that he will be just the son to work with his father as you said.
"And then about his room—you take my breath away! I can see you are making preparations as if for a queen and an heir to the throne. I ought to tell you to undo it all again; but who could ever tell anyone to undo what was done in love—for it was for love you did it, not for show.
"So you are already fighting for your draining project; it is just as well, it will be worth the more. Anyhow, I know you will win. Fight as hard as you like, fight for me and for him. It is only a pity he can't set to work at once and help you.
"We too are longing to be home again. And perhaps it will not be so long now. But if it has to be, I can be patient as long as I must. We are better than ever now. Do you know, I am so happy these days I have taken to singing, just as I used to do when I was a girl. What do you say to that? Suppose he were to have a voice, and sing in the choir, and leave you to work at your drainage all by yourself!
"My love, my love, I kiss you right in your heart. The warmest love from us both—I know you will be writing to us soon.
"KYLLIKKI (waiting to be a mother)."
"His BIRTHPLACE, 10th Sept., 11 a.m.
"FATHER!—Yes, that is what you are now. I can see your eyes light up. And a son, of course. At six o'clock this morning. All well, both going on finely; he is simply a picture of health, big and strong and full of life. And such a voice! If you want a man to shout out orders to the workmen.... I haven't looked at him properly yet. He is lying here just beside me; I can see his hand sticking out between the clothes. A fine little hand, not just fat and soft and flabby, but big and strong—his father's hand. The very hand to drain a marsh, you wait and see. And his soul—ah, you should see his eyes! His father's eyes. Now they won't let me write any more. I will tell you more next time. I have sent him a kiss with my eyes, from you—and there is a kiss for you in my thoughts.
"KYLLIKKI (the happy mother)."
The autumn sun was setting; it smiled upon the meadows, gleamed in the window-panes, and threw a kindly glow upon the distant forest. The air was cool.
Olof was in a strange mood to-day. He walked with light, springy step, and could not keep still for a moment; he was uneasy, and yet glad. He had sent a man to the station with a horse, and the little servant-maid had been dispatched on an errand to a distant village—he wished to be alone.
He stepped hastily into the bedroom, gave a searching glance round, looked at the thermometer on the wall, and laughed.
"Aha—beginning to look all right now."
Then he went back to the sitting-room. The coffee-pot was simmering its quiet, cheerful song on the fire; close by lay a goodly heap of white pine logs.
He lifted the pot from the fire, poured out a little of the coffee in a cup, and poured it back again. Then, thrusting his hands into his pockets, he walked up and down, smiling and whistling to himself.
"Wonder what she will think, when I don't come to the station to meet her there? But she'll understand... yes...."
He went back to the fire, poured out another half-cup of coffee, and tasted it.
"H'm—yes. It's good, I think it's good."
He took a bit of rag, wiped the pot carefully, and set it back. Then he looked at the clock.
"They ought to be at Aittamaki by now—or Simola at least...."
He stepped across to the cupboard, took out a white cloth and spread it on a tray, set out cups and saucers, cream jug and sugar bowl, and placed the tray on the table.
"There—that looks all right!"
Again he glanced impatiently at the clock.
"They'll be at the cross-roads now, at Vaarakorva ... might take that little stretch at a trot ... if only they don't drive too hard. Well, Kyllikki'll look to that herself...."
Again he felt that curious sense of lightness—as if all that weighed and burdened had melted away, leaving only a thin, slight shell, that would hardly keep to earth at all. He tramped up and down, looking out of the window every moment, not knowing what to do with himself.
"Now!" he cried, looking at the clock again. "Ten minutes more and they should be here!"
He sprang to the fire and threw on an armful of fine dry wood.
"There! Now blaze up as hard as you like. Bright eyes and a warm heart to greet them!"
He went into the bedroom and brought out a tiny basket-work cradle, that he had made himself. The bedding was ready prepared, white sheets hung down over the side, and a red-patterned rug smiled warmly—at the head a soft pillow in a snow-white case.
"There!" He set the cradle before the fire, and drew up the sofa close by. "He can lie there and we can sit here and look at him."
And now that all was ready, a dizziness of joy came over him—it seemed too good to be true. He looked out through the window once more; went out on to the steps and gazed down the road. Looked and listened, came back into the room, and was on the point of starting out to meet them, but thought of the fire—no, he could not leave the house.
At last—the brown figure of a horse showed out from behind the trees at the turn of the road. And at the sight, his heart throbbed so violently that he could not move a step; he stood there, looking out through the window—at the horse and cart, at Kyllikki with her white kerchief, and at the bundle in her arms.
Now they were at the gate. Olof ran out bareheaded, dashing down the path.
"Welcome!" he shouted as he ran.
"Olof!" Kyllikki's voice was soft as ever, and her eyes gleamed tenderly.
"Give him to me!" cried Olof, stretching out his arms impatiently.
And Kyllikki smiled and handed him a tiny bundle wrapped in woollen rugs.
Olof's hands trembled as he felt the weight of it in his arms.
"Help her down, Antti; and come back a little later on—I won't ask you in—not just now," he said confusedly to the driver.
The man laughed, and Kyllikki joined in.
But Olof took no heed—he was already on the way in with his burden. A few steps up the path he stopped, and lifted a corner of the wrappings with one hand. A tiny reddish face with two bright eyes looked up at him.
A tremor of delight thrilled him at the sight; he clasped the bundle closer to his breast, as if fearing to lose it. Hastily he covered up the little face once more, and hurried in.
Kyllikki watched him with beaming eyes. Following after, she stood in the doorway and looked round, with a little cry of surprise and pleasure, taking it all in at a glance—the genial welcome of the blazing fire, the tiny bed,—he had told her nothing of this,—the sofa close by, and the tray set out on the table, and coffee standing ready....
But Olof was bending over the cradle.
"These things—is it safe to undo them?" he asked, fumbling with safety-pins.
"Yes, that's all right," laughed Kyllikki, loosening her own cloak.
Olof had taken off the outer wrappings. He lifted the little arms, held the boy upright, looking at him critically, like a doctor examining recruits. "Long in the limbs—and sound enough, by the look of him!" Then he gazed earnestly into the child's face, with its wise, bright eyes, and seemed to find something there that promised well for the future.
"Dear little rascal!" he cried ecstatically, and tenderly he kissed the child's forehead. The boy made no sound, but seemed to be observing the pair.
Olof laid him down in the cradle. "Can't he say anything? Can't you laugh, little son?"
He blinked his eyes, smacked his lips, and uttered a little whistling sound as if calling some shy bird—he had never seen anything like it; it seemed to come of itself.
"Laughing—he's laughing ... that's the way!"
Kyllikki was standing behind him, leaning against the sofa, watching them both.
"And his hands! Sturdy hands to drain a marsh! So mother was right, was she? Ey, such a little fist! A real marsh-mole!" And he kissed the tiny hands delightedly.
"But look at his nails—they want cutting already. Ah, yes, mother knew father would like to do it himself, so she did."
And he hurried to Kyllikki's work-basket, and took out a small pair of scissors. "Father'll manage it—come!"
And he fell on his knees beside the bed.
"Don't be afraid—softly, softly—there! Father's hands are none so hard, for all he's so big." He cut the nails, kissing the little fingers in between. The boy laughed. Kyllikki leaned over towards them, smiling more warmly still.
"There—now it's done! Look at him, Kyllikki! Isn't he splendid?" And he turned towards her. "But what—what am I thinking of all the time! Kyllikki, I haven't even kissed you yet. Welcome, dear, welcome a thousand times!"
He took her in his arms. "How well you look—and lovely! Why, you look younger than ever! Little mother—how shall I ever thank you for—this!"
"It was your gift to me," said Kyllikki softly, with a tender glance at the little bed.
Olof led her to a seat, and they talked together in the silent speech of the eyes that is for great moments only.
* * * * *
"Why...!" Olof sprang up suddenly. "I'm forgetting everything to-day. Here I've made coffee all ready, and now...."
He lifted the coffee-pot and set it on the tray.
"Did you make the coffee?" asked Kyllikki, smiling in wonder.
"And who else should do it on such a day? Here!"
And they sat down to table, without a word.
* * * * *
Presently the child began to whimper. Both rose to their feet.
"What's the matter, then—did it hurt?" said Kyllikki tenderly. She lifted the little one in her arms, and began talking to him with her eyes, and smiling, with delicious little movements of her head.
The child began to laugh.
Without a word, she laid him in Olof's arms. He thanked her with a look, and held the boy close to his breast. All else seemed to have vanished but this one thing. And he felt the warmth of the little body gradually spreading through clothes and wrappings to his own ... it was like a gentle, soft caress. It thrilled him—and the arms that held the little burden trembled; he could not speak, but handed it back in silence to the mother.
She laid it in the cradle, set the pillow aright, and pulled up the coverlet, leaving only a little face showing above.
"It is a great trust, to be given such a little life to care for," said Olof, with a quiver in his voice, as they sat down on the sofa. "It seems too great a thing to be possible, somehow."
"But it is," said Kyllikki. "And do you know what I think? That forgiveness is a greater thing than punishment—and Life knows it!"
He nodded, and pressed her hand.
Again he glanced at the little red face on the pillow, and an expression of earnestness, almost of gloom, came over his own.