Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter III

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CHAPTER III[edit]

THE old gentleman went out at about three o'clock, alone: he did not like to be accompanied when he went, though he was glad to be brought back home; but he would never ask for this service. Aunt Adèle looked out of the window and followed him with her eyes as he turned by the barracks and crossed the razor-back bridge. He was not going farther than just down the Nassaulaan, to Mrs. Dercksz'; and he managed the distance with a delicate, erect figure and straight legs: he did not even look so very old a man, in his overcoat buttoned up to the throat, even though each step was carefully considered and supported by his heavy, ivory-knobbed stick. In order above all not to let it be perceived that this short walk was his exercise and his relaxation, a great deal of exercise and relaxation for his now merely nervous strength, he had needs to consider every step; but he succeeded in walking as though without difficulty, stiff and upright, and he studied his reflection in the plateglass of the ground-floor windows. In the street, he did not strike a passer-by as so very old. When he rang, old Anna hurried and the cat slipped crosswise through her petticoats, cat and maid making for the front-door at one run:

"The old gentleman, I expect."

Then she drove the cat back to the kitchen, afraid lest the old gentleman should stumble, and drew him in with little remarks about the weather and questions about his health; and to Takma it called for rare art to let his overcoat, which he took off in the hall, slip from his shoulders and arms into the maid's hands. He did it slowly and gradually, a little tired with the walk, but in the meanwhile he recovered breath sufficiently to go upstairs, one flight only, with the aid of the stick—"We may as well keep the stick, Anna," he would say—for Mrs. Dercksz nowadays never came down to the ground-floor rooms.

She was expecting him.

He came almost every day; and, when he was not coming, Aunt Adèle or Elly would call round to say so. So she sat, in her high-backed chair, waiting for him. She sat at the window, looking out at the gardens of the villas in the Sofialaan.

He murmured heartily, though his salutation was indistinct:

"Well, Ottilie? ... It's blowing out of doors.... Yes, you've been coughing a bit lately.... You must take care of yourself, you know.... I'm all right, I'm all right, as you see...."

With a few more words of genial heartiness, he sat down straight upright in the arm-chair at the other window, while Anna now for the first time relieved him of his hat, and rested his hands, still clad in the wide, creased gloves of glace kid, on his stick.

"I haven't seen you since the great news," said Mrs. Dercksz.

"The children are coming presently to pay their visit of inspection...."

They were both silent, their eyes looking into each other's eyes, chary of words. And quietly for a while they sat opposite each other, each at a window of the narrow drawing-room. The old, old woman sat in a twilight of crimson-rep curtains and cream-coloured lace-and-canvas blinds, in addition to a crimson-plush valance, which kept out the draught and hung with a bend along the window-frame. She had only moved just to raise her thin hand, in its black mitten, for Takma to press. Now they both sat as though waiting for something and yet pleased to be waiting together.... The old lady was ninety-seven and she knew that what she was waiting for must come before her hundredth year had dawned.... In the twilight of that curtained corner, against the sombre wall-paper, her face seemed almost like a piece of white porcelain, with wrinkles for the crackle, in that shadow into which she still withdrew, continuing a former prudent habit of not showing too much of her impaired complexion; and her wig was glossy-black, surmounted with the little black-lace cap; the loose black dress fell in easy, thin lines around her almost brittle, lean figure, but hid her so entirely in those never-varying folds of supple cashmere that she could never be really seen or known, but only suggested in that dark drapery. Besides the face, nothing else seemed alive but the frail fingers trembling in her lap, like so many tapering, luminous wands in their black mittens; the wrists were encircled in close-fitting woollen cuffs. She sat upright on her high-backed chair, as on a throne, supported by a stiff, hard cushion; another cushion was under her feet, which she never showed, as they were slightly deformed by gout. Beside her, on a little table, was some crochet-work, untouched for years, and the newspapers, which were read to her by a companion, an elderly lady who withdrew as soon as Mr. Takma arrived. The room was neat and simple, with a few framed photographs here and there as the only ornament amid the highly-polished, black, shiny furniture, the crimson sofa and chairs, with a few pieces of china gleaming in a glass cabinet. The closed folding-doors led to the bedroom: these were the only two rooms inhabited by the old woman, who took her light meal in her chair.

Golden-sunny was the late summer day; and the wind blew gaily, in a whirl of early yellow leaves, through the garden of the Sofialaan.

"A nice view, that," said Mrs. Dercksz, as she had said so often before, with her mittened hand just hinting at an angular pointing gesture.

The voice, long cracked, sounded softer than pure Dutch and was mellower, with its Creole accent; and, now that she looked out of the window, the eyes also took on an eastern softness in the porcelain features and became darker. She did not clearly distinguish things outside; but yet the knowledge that there were flowers and trees over the way was dear to her dim eyes.

"Fine asters in the garden opposite," said Takma.

"Yes," Mrs. Dercksz assented, unable to see them, but now knowing about the asters.

She understood him quite well; her general deafness she concealed by never asking what was said and by replying with a smile of her thin, closed lips or a movement of her head.

After a pause, as each sat looking out of his own window, she said:

"I saw Ottilie yesterday."

The old gentleman felt bewildered for a moment:

"Ottilie?" he asked.

"Lietje ... my daughter...."

"Oh, yes! ... You saw Lietje yesterday.... I thought you were speaking of yourself...."

"She was crying."

"Why?"

"Because Lot is going to be married."

"She'll be very lonely, poor Lietje; yet Steyn is a decent fellow..... It's a pity.... I like Steyn...."

"We are all of us lonely," said Mrs. Dercksz; and the cracked voice sounded sad, as though she were regretting a past full of vanished shades.

"Not all of us, Ottilie," said Takma. "You and I have each other. We have always had each other.... Our child, when Lot is married, will have no one, not even her own husband."

"Ssh!" said the old woman; and the straight, lean figure gave a shiver of terror in the twilight.

"There's no one here; we can speak at our ease."

"No, there's no one...."

"Did you think there was some one?"

"No, not now.... Sometimes ..."

"Yes?"

"Sometimes ... you know ... I think there is."

"There's no one."

"No, there's no one."

"Why are you afraid?"

"Afraid? Am I afraid? What should I be afraid of? I am too old ... much too old ... to be afraid now.... Even though he may stand over there."

"Ottilie!"

"Ssh!"

"There's no one."

"No."

"Have you ... have you seen him lately?"

"No.... No.... Not for months, perhaps not ... for years, for years.... But I did see him for many, many years.... You never saw him?"

"No."

"But ... you used to hear him?..."

"Yes, I ... I used to hear him ... My hearing was very good and always keen.... It was hallucinations.... I often heard his voice. ... Don't let us talk about it ... We are both so old, so old, Ottilie.... He must have forgiven us by now. Else we should never have grown so old. Our life has passed peacefully for years: long, long, old years; nothing has ever disturbed us: he must have forgiven us.... Now we are both standing on the brink of our graves." ( Yes, it will soon come. I feel it." But Takma brought his geniality into play: "You, Ottilie? You'll live to be a hundred!" His voice made an effort at bluff braggadocio and then broke into a shrill high note.

"I shall never see a hundred," said the old woman. "No. I shall die this winter."

"This winter?"

"Yes. I foresee it. I am waiting. But I am frightened."

"Of death?"

"Not of death. But ... of him!"

"Do you believe ... that you will see him again?"

"Yes. I believe in God, in the communion of souls, In a life hereafter. In atonement."

"I don't believe in an atonement hereafter, because we have both of us suffered so much in our lives, Ottilie!"

The old man's tone was almost one of entreaty.

"But there has been no punishment," said she.

"Our suffering was a punishment."

"Not enough. I believe that, when I am dead, he, he will accuse me."

"Ottilie, we have become so old, quietly, quietly. We have only had to suffer inwardly. But that has been enough, God will consider that punishment enough. Don't be afraid of death."

"I should not be afraid if I had seen his face wearing a gentler expression, with something of forgiveness. He always stared at me.... Oh, those eyes!..."

"Hush, Ottilie!..."

"When I sat here, he would stand there, in the corner by the cabinet, and look at me. When I was in bed, he appeared in my mirror and gazed at me. For years and years.... Perhaps it was an hallucination.... But I grew old like that. I have no tears left. I no longer wring my hands. I never move except between this chair and my bed. I have had no uneasiness ... or terror ... for years: nobody knows. Of the baboe ..."

"Ma-Boeten?"

"Yes ... I have had no news for years. She was the only one who knew. She's dead, I expect."

"Roelofsz knows," said the old gentleman, very softly.

"Yes ... he knows ... but ..."

"Oh, he has always kept silent I ..."

"He is ... almost ... an accomplice...."

"Ottilie, you must think about it calmly.... We have grown so very old ... You must think about it calmly, as I think about it.... You have always been too fanciful ..."

His voice sounded in entreaty, very different from its usual airy geniality.

"It was after that in particular that I became full of fancies. No, I have never been able to think about it calmly! At first I was afraid of people, then of myself: I thought I should go mad I ... Now, now that it is approaching ... I am afraid of God!"

"Ottilie!"

"It has been a long, long, long martyrdom.... O God, can it be that this life is not enough?"

"Ottilie, we should not have grown so very old—you ... and I ... and Roelofsz—if God ... and he also had not forgiven us."

"Then why did he so often ... come and stand there! Oh, he stood there so often! He just stared, pale, with dark, sunken eyes, eyes like two fiery daggers: like that!..."

And she pointed the two slender, wand-like forefingers straight in front of her.

"I ... I am calm, Ottilie. And, if we are punished afterwards, after our death, we must endure it. And, if we endure it ... we shall receive mercy."

"I wish I were a Catholic. I thought for a long time of becoming a Catholic. Thérèse was quite right to become a Catholic.... Oh, why do I never see her now? Shall I ever see her again? I hope so. I hope so.... If I had been a Catholic, I should have confessed ..."

"There is no absolution among Catholics for that."

"Isn't there? I thought ... I thought that a priest could forgive anything ... and cleanse the soul before you died. The priest at any rate could have consoled me, could have given me hope! Our religion is so cold. I have never been able to speak of it to a clergyman...."

"No, no, of course not!"

"I could have spoken of it to a priest. He would have made me do penance all my life long; and it would have relieved me. Now, that is always here, on my breast. And I am so old. I sit with it. I lie in bed with it. I cannot even walk about with it, roam about with it, forget myself in movement...."

"Ottilie, why are you talking about it so much to-day? Sometimes we do not mention it for months, for years at a time. Then the months and years pass quietly.... Why are you suddenly talking so very much about it to-day?"

"I began thinking, because Lot and Elly are getting married."

"They will be happy."

"But isn't it a crime, a crime against nature?"

"No, Ottilie, do reflect ..."

"They are ..."

"They are cousins. They don't know it, but that isn't a crime against nature!"

"True."

"They are cousins."

"Yes, they're cousins."

"Ottilie is my daughter; her son is my grandson. Elly's father ..."

"Well?"

"Do reflect, Otillie: Elly's father, my son, was Lietje's brother. Their children are first cousins."

"Yes."

"That's all they are."

"But they don't know that they are cousins. Lietje has never been told that she is your daughter. She has never been told that she was your son's sister."

"What difference does that make? Cousins are free to marry."

"Yes, but it's not advisable.... It's not advisable because of the children that may come, because of the blood and because ... because of everything."

"Of what, Ottilie?"

"They inherit our past. They inherit that terror. They inherit our sin. They inherit the punishment for our offence."

"You exaggerate, Ottilie. No, they don't inherit as much as that."

"They inherit everything. One day perhaps they will see him standing, perhaps they will hear him, in the new houses where they will live.... It would have been better if Elly and Lot had found their happiness apart from each other ... in other blood, in other souls.... They will never be able to find the ordinary happiness. Who knows, perhaps their children will be ..."

"Hush, Ottilie, hush!"

"Criminals...."

"Ottilie, please be quiet! Oh, be quiet! Why do you speak like that? For years, it has been so peaceful. You see, Ottilie, we are too old. We have been allowed to grow so old. We have had our punishment. Oh, don't let us speak about it again, never again! Let us wait calmly, calmly, and suffer the things that come after us, for we cannot alter them."

"Yes, let us wait calmly."

"Let us wait. It will come soon. It will come soon, for you and me."

His voice had sounded imploringly; his eyes shone wet with terror. She sat stiff and upright in her chair; her fingers trembled violently in the deep, black folds of her lap. But a -lethargy descended upon both of them; the strange lucidity and the anxious tension of their unaccustomed words seemed but for a moment to be able to galvanize their old souls, as though by a suggestion from without. Now they both grew lethargic and became very old indeed. For a long time they stared, each at his window, without words.

Then there was a ring at the front-door.