The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Volume Xix Part 23

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When Boris did not answer, Billy repeated the question in a whimpering, wailing tone. Then she heard him sink down beside the bed. He flung his arms about her, she felt his face lying cold and heavy on her breast, and felt a strange quiver shake his body, as if he were weeping.

“Didn’t you say everything would be all right?” said Billy, and again her voice sounded tearful and vexed. “Why don’t you speak? I don’t know anything, I thought I must be with you, and that is why I went with you. Didn’t you say everything would be all right?”

Boris clung more tightly to Billy’s arm and pulled himself up; the upper part of his body rested on her, his face quite close to hers, and now he kissed her with dry hungry lips.

“Yes,” he whispered, “everything will be well if you but wish it so.

But I am so terribly afraid of one thing …”

“You are afraid too,” replied Billy dully, “well, then–“

“No, listen,” continued Boris, and his whispers became strangely hot and pa.s.sionate, “if you but will. I am afraid of tomorrow, when it grows gray and bright and we must do something and must be burdened with care, and people will come and everything will be so ugly, the others and we, and our love,–O Billy, I have never been able to endure the first morning after such a happiness–“

“Why, we can’t help the morning’s coming,” said Billy, still in her vexed tone.

“Oh yes, we can,” said Boris breathless with emotion, and his hands closed around Billy’s shoulders so tightly that it hurt her. “We are together, aren’t we?–and we can be so happy, so happy, that we shall not wish to see another morning. That we can do. You will see. Come, you and I, and then nothing but dying will be endurable.” He stammered this, bent down quite close to her, his face pale and ominous, and his hands pulling feverishly at Billy’s dress.

“Why, how can we die?” responded Billy wearily.

“How–is all one,” answered Boris impatiently, “you will see, we cannot go on living then.”

Billy opened her eyes and looked at Boris keenly and anxiously. “Have you that terrible little revolver that you showed me in the garden at home, and that you said was your friend?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, but why speak of it,” replied Boris impatiently, “we are thinking only of ourselves now, of our happiness. Will you, tell me! We are together, each beside the other, and there is nothing here but us, and we had rather die than let anything else come near us.”

Billy raised herself a trifle, and pushed Boris’s hands, which were ardently pa.s.sing over her body, away from her like something irksome.

Her eyes grew wide and bright with fear, but her lips quivered as in a mocking and slightly contemptuous smile: “Be happy–here among these ugly red cushions. Oh, please leave me now. You–you are like the rest of the things here, I am afraid of you too!”

Boris released Billy and raised himself up. Now he knelt beside the bed, dropped his arms limply, and gnawed at his under lip. His face wore an expression of grieved disappointment. Billy again leaned back on the pillows, turned her face to the wall, and closed her eyes.

Motionless she lay there like a frightened child and listened intently for the slightest sound.

Boris was silent for a time, but once he said, “Why Billy,” and this was once more the voice she knew; something in it breathed upon her like the odorous exhalation of the garden at home, and the Boris she knew and the Billy she knew, and their love–all this was present again for a moment. She felt like turning around, but she only closed her eyes the tighter, knowing that if she opened them everything would be gone in spite of herself. She heard herself say, with a sullen, superior air, “Die?–no, certainly not. If that is all you can think of!”

Boris was silent again, and Billy waited in anxious suspense. Then she heard him get up, take a few steps, murmuring to himself, “Well, that’s another thing, nothing to be done,” and then walked slowly and hesitatingly from the room. She could hear that he merely pulled the door to, and that he walked up and down in the adjoining room, stood still, poured something into a gla.s.s, and then walked up and down again. She listened attentively to the soft, restless creaking of those steps, listening with that agonizing wakefulness with which we follow something that threatens us, that is about to attack us. For this sound grew strangely expressive. Billy thought she could hear in it quick, angry words, a voice that discontentedly muttered abusive epithets to itself. Then when the rhythm of this voice changed, Billy held her breath with agitation. “Now he is walking on tiptoe,” she thought, “now he is approaching the door.” Boris cautiously reentered the room and stood still at the foot of the bed. She heard distinctly the faint clink of the charm on his watch-chain, then came utter stillness. Billy did not budge, but waited with the resignation we feel in dreams, upon which we unconsciously base the hope that waking will come and free us from the events of the dream.

Boris began to speak in a hollow, weary voice: “Of course you are not asleep. You are trying to deceive me. Do not let me disturb you, I pray! I never ask a second time. Either people understand me or they do not. You do not understand me: very well, very well, it is always the same story. You women never do understand.” He paused and it was strange enough to see how the girlish face with the closed eyes and the tightly clenched lips flushed and paled. “All that surprises me,”

continued Boris, “is that you came here at all. To be proper, we do not need to come here. Yes, but that is always the way: we think that together we stand on a very high plane, high above everything small and foolish; we think that the great moment is coming now, for which we have been waiting a lifetime; and then it comes to naught again, one is alone after all, and you, you have stayed down below there in the world of–of–Madame Bonnechose.”

He was silent again, and Billy thought: “Was he laughing then?” There had been something in his voice that sounded like that. She pressed her eyelids more tightly together; not for the world would she have seen that sad and proud smile of which she had always been afraid, even at moments when she loved Boris most ardently. Boris took a few steps, then stood still again: “Only load myself with responsibility, and have nothing for it?–no thanks! Out of what could have been very beautiful and great you make something ugly and silly. That’s a game I won’t play. I don’t understand being ridiculous, we Poles have no talent for that.” Again he paced awhile, again he waited; yes, he was waiting, Billy knew he was, but not for a moment did the thought come to her that she might open her eyes, speak to him, or call him back: she had but one idea, to lie quite still and not move, then perhaps this too would pa.s.s. Boris was now at the door; she heard the soft creaking of the rusty hinges, and on the threshold he stopped to say in a voice that sounded strangely alien and altered, the voice of a man who is all alone somewhere or other, and who is speaking to himself sadly and hopelessly, “No, not that, I am so tired of having nothing but misunderstandings to live for.” He went out and pulled the door to again, and Billy heard him stride to and fro in the adjoining room, and then fling himself on the old cracking sofa.

The thunderstorm was over, and a fine rain trickled down quietly and evenly, beating quite gently on the window-panes. Billy still lay there very quietly. Why should she move? Why should she open her eyes? Round about her was nothing that belonged to her, nothing that partook of her, nothing that she felt to be Life. A feeling of aloneness, never before experienced, took physical hold upon her, something that made her ill, that chilled her.

Boris had spoken in his strangely altered voice of being happy and dying. These words she had heard once before, at home among the currant bushes, but there it had had a different sound, there it had sounded sad and sultry and sweet; she had understood it there, and it seemed to her to be something possible and easy, if Boris wished it. But to die–here, that was incomprehensible and repulsive like everything else here: for that was just the result of this terribly puzzling feeling of loneliness which was icily creeping over her. She must lie here, and life was infinitely far away; she saw it like a spot quite yellow with sunshine, quite gay with autumn flowers, and familiar figures were pa.s.sing through this sunshine: before the wash-house knelt the washwoman with her white ap.r.o.n, at the bed of carnations knelt the gardener with his yellow straw hat, and under the pear-tree stood her father, drawing the scent of the early pears and the plums into his long white nose.

Billy saw this, felt it, smelt it, and yet all of it was living without her: or rather, she herself was there, and she could see herself, also her love was there, Boris, and everything, but she could not cross over to join herself there. Billy raised herself, her eyes wide open, her mouth very red against the white face, and about her lips the resolute, obstinate lines which they were wont to a.s.sume when Billy felt that she must have something for which she longed.

She climbed softly out of the bed, crept to the unclosed door and peeped through the crack. Boris was lying asleep on the sofa. His tangled hair hung down on his forehead, and his pale face wore the grief-stricken and at the same time helpless expression with which sound sleep overspreads a face. On the table stood the champagne bottle and a half-emptied gla.s.s. The candle had burned very low, and the only sound in the room was a faint moaning that issued from Boris’s half-open mouth, wailing and then changing to short, high-pitched, and as it were mocking sounds. Billy cautiously pulled the door shut. Then she bustled about, took her cloak and hat, went to the window, and opened it. The draught put out the candle; outside it still seemed dark, the rain was whispering in the gloom, the great pines were rustling, a deep, loud rustle, a glorious untrammeled breath from a breast of infinite capacity, and Billy too had to breathe, quite deeply, before she swung herself upon the window-sill and jumped out.

The wind drove the rain into her face and took her breath. One moment she stood there, bending forward slightly, like one who stands in the ocean waiting for a wave to break over him. Then she ran into the darkness with firm, obstinate steps. On the wet road lay a dull, dead light. Billy followed it. Water leaped up against her legs with a splash when she stepped into the puddles, and from her hat tiny cold rivulets trickled down inside the collar of her cloak. Everything was against her, everything that whispered, gurgled, snickered, and murmured round about her, was hostile. It was frightful, and she was frightened, but she had expected nothing else and she simply had to advance. And in doing so she found in herself something that she had never known there before, she found in herself the agitating feeling of angry watchfulness and as it were sullen curiosity, which are of the essence of courage. Thinking was impossible, she merely had to be on her guard. So she rushed on. The road now grew dark. The great pines murmured about her quite near at hand, and at times a wet branch struck at her or tried to catch her, whereupon she would thrust it from her fiercely and pugnaciously. A vast, dreamy resignation toward the lurking Unknown made her almost apathetic. At the same time it was queer enough that through all this time an image stood before her, trying to be felt and seen. She saw herself clearly as if she were walking by her own side: the slender figure in the brown rain-coat, the wet hat on her head, bending forward slightly and running along the unfamiliar black roads as resistlessly and unconsciously as a bullet hurled by a powerful hand, forward over the roots that treacherously placed themselves in her way, under the branches that tried to hold her fast and drenched her with water, past great dusky birds that whirred across the road, sending terrifying, wailing notes into the night.

But that had to be, life outside the garden-gates of Kadullen was like that, and only thus could you fight your way back to those garden-gates. And it seemed to Billy as if she could feel that here in the gloomy world about her many such solitary figures were running down black roads, quickly, quickly. She felt so strongly the presence of these nocturnal comrades that they were uncanny and yet a trifle consoling to her. The road grew steadily clearer and more shiny, trees and bushes now stood out distinctly in a gray light, night-ravens flapped their wings: day was coming. But Billy did not look up. Though it was frightful to dream this dream, yet she was afraid to wake out of it. She knew that if she did, this fever of courage and of thoughtless resignation would forsake her, and that she would then have no strength left. Her head bowed low over the road, she rushed on; now she was in the midst of a white mist, then again she would be walking on moss like red and green velvet. It had grown remarkably still about her; rain and wind must have ceased. Suddenly she was walking all bathed in a ruddy light. She felt this light like something that causes pain, and she narrowed her eyes and bowed her head lower. Gradually the light became golden, there was a flaming radiance and flicker everywhere, and a humming began in the air, and a rustling in the moss. Billy felt how a busy life had awakened about her, and she walked faster: it was like a race with this Day, that was advancing so calmly and wakefully in all his glory.

How long Billy had walked this way she did not know, but it seemed an interminable time. The sun was already high in a pure blue sky and beat down pitilessly. Billy felt as if she must be carrying a very warm burden along with her, and moreover her feet grew so heavy, moving slowly and mechanically like things that did not belong to her; they were indifferent to her like everything else about her, and for her own feeling she was some strange thing that was being laboriously driven forward through the sunshine. Then suddenly, in a small forest clearing, she sank down on a mossy knoll in the glaring sun. It was delicious to stretch out her legs, to lay her back against the warm huckleberry bushes. There could be nothing nicer in life. Around the clearing stood young firs and pines, as shiny as metal, and so motionless that the drops which still hung here and there on their needles seemed frozen. Everything was motionless under this yellow light, the gra.s.s-blades, the moss-blossoms, and the little blue b.u.t.terflies, and a b.u.mble-bee crawled into the bell of a bennet and hung there as if enchanted. In the thicket a fox drew near, his head lowered to sniff the ground, and suddenly he too stood still without stirring a muscle and stared into s.p.a.ce, his eyes transparent as green gla.s.s, spell-bound by the overpowering silence of the hour.

Billy sat there, and on her too was the burden of this motionlessness which was so soothing, this delicious intoxication of light, of silence, and of all the hot odors which the leaves, the pine-needles, and the great sun-basking mushrooms exhaled. She too stared into s.p.a.ce, feeling how her eyes also grew as gla.s.sy bright as the eyes of yonder fox, and how everything in her merely existed to drink in the sunlit stillness.

Now the cry of the jay rang out excitedly, as if he would waken some one whether or no. The fox was gone, and Billy also started up; then she leaned back, lifted her arms, stretched herself, and screwed up her face as if to cry. Something very beautiful was over. Painfully she got up: what was the use, she must go on in any case.

A wide forest road, covered with short gra.s.s, led her through a young fir-nursery, and when the road took a turn, a bit of heath lay before Billy, in the midst of which stood some cottages, standing there with their golden-brown timbers and silver-gray roofs like tiny, gleaming caskets on the red-blooming heath. Over there a cow was lowing in long-drawn, sleepy tones; a c.o.c.k crowed; smoke rose straight from the chimney into the sky. Billy stopped short; all this moved her so powerfully, she did not know why; her eyes grew moist, and yet she could not but smile. She went straight toward the house; a low lattice fence inclosed a garden which Billy entered through the half open gate.

Long beds of vegetables, gooseberry bushes. Here and there blue flowering chicory and dark red poppies laid flaming spots of color on the uniform brightness of the midday light. Beehives stood around everywhere. Before one of these a man was kneeling, busied with the bees. Billy went up to him; doubtless he heard the gravel crunch under her feet, and he raised his head: a small old face, looking as if it had been compressed in an upward direction, gazed at Billy calmly out of dull, very light blue eyes.

“Good morning,” said Billy.

“Good morning,” answered the man, holding his hands out cautiously before him, for they were thickly covered with bees as with golden-yellow velvet gloves. As Billy said nothing, he turned to his hive again.

“Am I far from Kadullen?” Billy began again.

“Three hours’ walk,” answered the man without looking up.

Again both were silent. The strong scent of the potherbs in the garden-beds, the sourish smell of the honey, the faint buzzing of the bees, all this enveloped Billy like boundless, delicious indolence. “To rest here,” thought she.

“May I sit here?” she asked, pointing to a wheelbarrow which lay upturned on the gravel path. The old man merely nodded, as he cautiously stripped the bees from his hands, and Billy sat down, stretched out her feet, let her arms hang heavily, and sighed deeply: this was all she needed. Oh, it wasn’t so hard to live, after all.

“You’re the young lady at Kadullen?” the old man finally said again, “I often go there with honey. S’pose you’re wet, hey?”

“Yes.”

“S’pose you’ve been out in the rain during the night, and now I s’pose you want to go home?”

Yes, Billy wanted to go home. The old man took off his straw hat and thoughtfully rubbed his hand over his bald, shiny pate. “We could hitch up,” he said. Then he turned toward the other side and cried, “Lina!”

Over there before the little stable a red cow was standing, and in front of her squatted a girl in a blue linen dress, milking her. The girl got up slowly and a little laboriously, stood there a moment, screwed up her face at the sunlight, looked crossly over at Billy, and wiped her big red hands on her white ap.r.o.n.

“Come on,” said the old man.

So Lina came slowly along the vegetable beds; on the big, stout body perched a small head, with a puffy-cheeked, very heated childish face under a heavy ma.s.s of oily brown hair. She still kept her hands on her ap.r.o.n, as if wishing to conceal the fact that she was pregnant. She stopped short before Billy and asked ill-humoredly, “What is it, father?”

“Take the young lady in with you,” said the father, “put some dry clothes on her, and give her something to eat; afterward, young lady, we’ll drive on.”

Lina turned and strode toward the house.

Billy got up to follow her, when the old man looked slyly at the two with a sidelong glance, pointed at his daughter with his thumb and said, “She’s lost her good name too.” Lina looked back at Billy, pa.s.sed the back of her hand across her eyes, and smiled faintly.

The living room into which Billy was conducted must have been freshly calcimined, for it seemed so surprisingly, glaringly white. The sunshine was so strangely heavy and honey-yellow as it rested on the red and white chintz covers of the furniture and the pine boards of the floor. Then, too, there was an eager, loud medley of bird-voices trying to outsing each other, for all over the ceiling and at the window hung canaries in cages; there were perhaps ten or twelve, and the little creatures, excited by the light, trilled as if they were intoxicated by their own singing.

“Oh, the birds,” said Billy surprised.

“Them!” said Lina peevishly, “they yelp all daylong.”

Billy had to sit down on the sofa, and Lina began to undress her. She drew off her shoes, then her stockings. “The little feet,” she murmured, “I can hold one of ’em in my hand like a little bird.” She was quite absorbed in her task, and talked to herself like a child playing quietly in a corner with its doll. “The lovely underwear, and wet through and through, and we have a skin like silk, there, there, and now comes the shirt, brand new it is, I made it for my wedding.”

“For your wedding!” asked Billy, who obeyed mechanically the big, careful hands.