Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter XIX
|←Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter XVIII||Old People and the Things that Pass by , translated by Alexander Teixeira De Mattos
|Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter XX→|
SHE wandered round the house, greatly agitated and uncertain what to do. She heard her son Pol, the undergraduate, in his room downstairs, next to the front-door. He was sitting there smoking with some friends; and as she passed she listened to the lads' noisy voices. There was a ring at the door: it was her younger boy, Gus, her favourite; and, glad to hear his merry and youthful chatter, she forgot for a moment the feverish curiosity that consumed her so fiercely.
She now thought of going to her father in his study, but it was too near dinner-time, she feared, and Papa did not like being disturbed at this hour. She was restless, could not sit down, kept wandering about. Just imagine, if Papa was ruined, what should they do? Aunt Stefanie would perhaps leave something to Gus, she was fonder of him than of the others; but there were so many nephews and nieces. If only Aunt didn't fritter her little fortune away in legacies! ... Her maternal feelings, always centring on the question of money, made her think of the future of her three children. Well, for Lily she was doing everything in her power, working on the feelings of both Aunt Stefanie and Uncle Anton. As for Pol, he must manage as best he could: if he had a million, he would still be hard up. The dinner-hour approached; and she waited, with D'Herbourg and the two boys, in the dining-room, for Papa to come down. When Harold Dercksz entered, it seemed to her that Father's long, lean figure, which was always bent, was now more bent than ever; a bilious yellow gave his hollow cheeks a deep metallic colour. Ina loved a formal but cheerful table; the simple meal was tastefully served; she kept up a certain style in her home, was a very grande dame of a housekeeper. She had brought up her children with the utmost correctness and could not understand that Lily had so soon kicked over the traces, immediately after her marriage: what a scene of slovenliness you always found at Frits and Lily's! She was pleased with her boys as she thought of it, pleased with their manners at table: Pol talked gaily and pleasantly, though not too noisily, because of Grandpapa; Gus made a little joke from time to time; then Ina would laugh and stroke his head. Harold Dercksz hardly spoke at all, listened to the boys with a smile of pain on his lips. D'Herbourg carved. There was usually a separate dish for Grandpapa: he had to be very careful because of his digestion and his liver. As a matter of fact, he was always in pain. Sometimes his forehead puckered with physical agony. He never spoke of what he suffered, did what the doctor told him, was always taciturn and gentle, quietly dignified, broken in body through illness, broken in soul through the melancholy that shone in the gentle glance of his old eyes with their discoloured irises. Ina looked after her father, began by seeing to his special dish; she was attentive and liked to have everything quite right in her house and at her table.
At dessert, however, her uncontrollable curiosity arose in her once more. Questions burnt upon her lips, but of course she would ask nothing during dinner ... and she again laughed at something that Gus said, stroked his curly head. She looked more motherly in her indoor dress; when she was with Gus, her weary eyes had not the same ultra-well-bred glance as under the waving white bird of paradise, when she sat cheek by jowl with fat Aunt Floor, who was so Indian. Papa got up at dessert and said, courteously:
"Do you mind, Ina? My pain's rather bad this evening...."
"Poor Father!" she said, kindly.
The old man left the room: Pol had jumped up at once to open the door for him. The parents and the two boys sat on a little longer. Ina told the others about Uncle Daan and Aunt Floor; they were amused at the twenty packs of Chinese playing-cards. Gus, who was a good mimie, imitated the Indian accent of Aunt Floor, whom he remembered from her last visit, a couple of years ago; and Ina laughed merrily at her boy's wit. Thus encouraged, Gus mimicked Aunt Stefanie, made his face look like an elderly bird's, with a quivering, flexible neck, and D'Herbourg roared with delight; but Pol, the undergraduate, cried:
"Don't forget, Gus, that you've got expectations from Aunt. You must never let her know you mimic her!"
"It's not nice of you to say that," said Ina, in a mildly reproachful tone. "No, Pol, it's not nice of you. You know Mamma doesn't like allusions to expectations and so forth. No, Pol, it's not very good taste.... I can't understand how Papa can laugh at it."
But the merriment continued because of Gus; and, when he imitated Uncle Anton, with his fists clenched on his knees, Ina allowed herself to be led on and they all three laughed, leagued against the Derckszes as in a family alliance of aristocratic Jonkheer d'Herbourgs against Indian uncles, aunts, granduncles and grandaunts.
"Yes, Grandpapa is certainly the best of them," said Pol. "Grandpapa is always distinguished."
"Well, Greatgranny"—as the children called the old lady—"Greatgranny, old as she is, is a very distinguished woman!" said Ina.
"What tons of old people we have in the family!" said Gus, irreverently.
Ina repressed him: no jokes about the old lady; for that matter, they all of them stood in awe of her, because she was so very old and remained so majestic.
"Aunt Ottilie has turned sixty, hasn't she?" Ina asked, suddenly, hypnotized by the number sixty, which loomed fatefully large before her eyes.
And the D'Herbourgs now ceased talking of money, but discussed the family instead. With the exception of Grandmamma and Papa—Greatgranny and Grandpapa to the boys—they pulled all the others to pieces and Gus mimicked them all: in addition to Uncle Anton, Aunt Stefanie and Aunt Floor, he mimicked Uncle Daan, mimicked the son who held a legal office out there, mimicked "Shaan," the resident's wife at Cheribon. He had seen them all in Holland, when they came home for anything from two to twelve months on leave; and they always provided food for discussion and jest in the D'Herbourg mansion. But Ina did not laugh any more and stood up, while her curiosity burnt her to the point of causing her physical pain.
Harold Dercksz was sitting upstairs at his big writing-table. A lamp with a green shade made him appear still yellower; and the wrinkles were sharply furrowed in the old man's worn face. He sat huddled in his chair, screening his eyes with his hand. In front of him lay great sheets of figures, which he had to examine, as Daan had asked him to. He stared before him. Sixty years ago he had seen the Thing. It was slowly passing, but in passing it came back again to him so closely, so very closely. The sight of it had given his child-brain and child-nerves a shock for all his life; and that he had grown old quietly, very old, older than he need have, was due to his self-restraint.... The thing of the past, the terrible Thing, was a ghost and looked at him with eyes while it came nearer, dragging its veil of mist over rustling leaves, over a path lined with sombre trees from which the leaves fell everlastingly.... The Thing was a ghost and came nearer and nearer in passing, before it would vanish entirely in the past; but never had a single creature appeared from behind the trees to stretch out a forbidding hand and hold back the ghastly Thing that went trailing by.... Was a shadow loitering behind the trees, was some one really appearing, did he really see a hand motioning the thing, the ghastly Thing, to stop in its passage through the rustling leaves? ... Oh, if it would only pass! ... How slowly, how slowly it passed! ... For sixty long years it had been passing, passing. ... And the old man and the old woman, both in their respective houses or sitting together at the windows, were waiting until it should have passed. ... But it would not pass, so long as they were still alive.... Harold Dercksz felt pity for the old man, for the old woman.... Oh, if it would but pass! ... How long the years lasted! ... How old they had grown! ... Why must they grow so old? ... Was that their punishment, their punishment, the punishment of both of them? For he now knew what part his mother had played in the crime, the terrible crime. Daan had told him; Ma-Boeten had told her son; the m'antri had told Daan. There were so many who knew it! And the old people believed that nobody ... that nobody knew it except ... except old Dr. Roelofsz! ... Oh, so many knew it, knew the Thing that was buried and kept on raising its spectral form, the secret that was always rising up again in its clammy mist.... Oh, that he must needs grow so old, so old that Daan now knew it too! If only Daan held his tongue and did not tell Floor! Would he hold his tongue? Would the mantri go on holding his tongue? Money must be paid, at least until the old, the poor old people were dead ... and until the Thing was past for them and with them....
A gentle tap; and the door opened: he saw his daughter on the threshold.
"Father dearest," she said, winningly.
"What is it, dear?"
Ina came nearer.
"I'm not disturbing you, I hope? I came to see how you were. I thought you looked so bad at dinner...."
She tended him, like a good daughter; and he appreciated it. His heart was sensitive and soft and he appreciated the companionship of the home: Ina's care, the boys' youth imparted a genial warmth to his poor chilled heart; and he put out his hand to her. She sat down beside his chair, giving a quick glance at the papers before him, interested in the sight of all those figures, which no doubt represented the state of Papa's fortune and Uncle Daan's. Then she asked:
"Are you ill, Father dear?"
"Yes," he said, moaning, "I'm in pain." And, moved by her affection, he added, "Better if it were over with me soon."
"Don't say that: we could never do without you."
He smiled, with a gesture of denial:
"You would have a trouble the less."
"Why, you know you're no trouble to me."
It was true and she said it sincerely; the note of sincerity rang true in his child's motherly voice.
"But you oughtn't to be always working like this," she went on.
"I don't do much work."
"What are all those figures?"
She smiled invitingly. He knew her curiosity, had known it ever since her childhood, when he had caught her ferreting in his writing-desk. Since that time, he had locked everything up.
"Business," he replied, "Indian business. I have to look into these figures for Uncle Daan, but it doesn't mean much work."
"Is Uncle Daan satisfied with the business?"
"Yes, he is. We shall be rich yet, dear."
"Do you think so?"
Her voice sounded greedy.
"Yes. Have no fear. I'll leave you something yet."
His voice sounded bitter.
"Oh, Father, I really wasn't thinking of that. I do worry about money sometimes, because of Lily, who married on nothing: what have Frits and Lily to live on? And because of my boys. I don't care about money myself."
It was almost true; it had become true as the years went on. Since she had grown older, she thought of money more for her children's sake; motherliness had developed in her soul, even though that soul remained material and small.
"Yes," said Harold Dercksz, "I know."
"You are so depressed, Father."
"I am just the same as usual."
"No, Uncle Daan has made you depressed. I can see it."
He was silent and on his guard.
"You never speak out, Father. Is there nothing I can do for you? What's depressing you?"
"Yes, there is; yes, there is. Tell me what's depressing you."
He shook his head.
"Won't you tell me?"
"Yes, there's something. Perhaps it's something terrible."
He looked her in the eyes.
"Father, is it a secret?"
"Yes, it is; it's a secret. It's a secret, a secret that's depressing you ... since I don't know how long."
He turned cold in his limbs and all his soul armed itself, as in a cuirass, and he remained like that, on his guard.
"Child, you're fancying things," he said.
"No, I'm not, but you won't speak. It hurts me to see you so sad."
"I am unwell."
"But you are depressed ... by that terrible thing ... that secret...."
"No, there must be something. Is it about money?"
"Is it about money which Uncle Daan...." He looked at her.
"Ina," he said, "Uncle Daan sometimes has different ideas about absolute honesty in business ... from those which I have. But he always ends by accepting my view. I am not depressed by any secret about money."
"About what then?"
"Nothing. There is no secret, dear. You're fancying things."
"No, I'm not. I ... I..."
"You know?" he asked, loudly, with his eyes looking into hers.
"N-no," she stammered. "I ... I don't know anything ... but ... I feel ..."
"That there's a secret that's depressing you."
"About ... about something that's happened...."
"You know," he said.
"No, I don't."
"Nothing has happened, Ina," he said, coldly. "I am an old, sick man. You tire me. Leave me in peace. Leave me in peace."
He rose from his chair, nervous, agitated. She drew up her weary eyes with her well-bred expression, with her mother's expression, the expression of the IJsselmondes, who were her source of pride.
"I will noT tire you, Papa," she said and her voice, sharp but tuned to the correct social enunciation, sounded affected, "I will not tire you. I will leave you in peace. I came to you, I wanted to speak to you ... because I thought ... that you had some worry ... some sorrow. I wanted to share it. But I will not insist."
She went on, slowly, with the offended haughtiness of a grande dame, as Harold Dercksz remembered seeing his mother leave the room after a conversation. A reproachful tenderness welled up in him; he had almost kept her back. But he restrained his emotion and let her go. She was a good daughter to him, but her soul, the soul of a small-minded woman, was all consumed with money needs, with foolish conceit about small, vain things—because her mother was a Freule IJsselmonde—and with a passionate curiosity. He let her go, he let her go; and his loneliness remained around him. He sank into his chair again, screened his eyes with his hand; and the lamplight under the green shade furrowed the wrinkles sharply in his worn face of anguish. He stared out before him. What did she know? What did she guess? What had she overheard perhaps ... in the conservatory, as she came to them? ... He tried to remember the last words which he had exchanged with Daan. He could not remember. He decided that Ina knew nothing, but that she guessed, because of his increased depression.... Oh, if the Thing would only pass! ... Oh, if the old people would only die! ... Oh, that no one might be left to know! ... It was enough, it was enough, there had been enough years of self-reproach and silent, inward punishment for people who were so old, so very old....
And he stared, as though he were looking the Thing in the eyes.
He stared all the evening long; sitting in his chair, his face twisted with illness and pain, he fell asleep with the light sleep of old people, quick to come and quick to go, and he saw himself again, a child of thirteen, in the night in the pasangrahan and heard his mother's voice:
"O my God, O my God, no, no, not in the river!"
And he saw those three—but young still—his mother, Takma, Ma-Boeten; and between them his father's lifeless body, in the pelting rain of that fatal night.....