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- Absalom's Hair - 20/22 -
the thought of the letter tortured him, till he could not sit still. This dreadful analysis of his mother, strophe after strophe, it rose before him, it again drove him into the state of mind in which he had been among the hills and woods of Eidsvold. Beyond the tunnel the character of the scenery was the same.--Good God! that dreadful letter was never absent from his thoughts, otherwise he would not suffer so terribly. What right had he to reproach his mother, or any one, because a mere chance should have become of importance in their lives?
Would the telegram arrive in time to save her from despair, and yet not frighten her from home because he was coming? To think that he could write in such a way to her, who had but lived to collect the information which would free him! His ingratitude must appear too monstrous to her. The extreme reserve which she was unable to break through might well lead to catastrophes. What might not she have determined on when she received this violent attack by way of thanks? Perhaps she would think that life was no longer worth living, she who thought it so easy to die. He shuddered.
But she will do nothing hastily, she will weigh everything first. Her roots go deep. When she appears to have acted on impulse, it is because she has had previous knowledge. But she has no previous knowledge here; surely here she will deliberate.
He pictured her as, wrapped in her shawl, she wandered about in dire distress--or with intent gaze reviewing her life and his own, until both appeared to her to have been hopelessly wasted--or pondering where she could best hide herself so that she should suffer no more.
How he loved her! All that had happened had drawn a veil over his eyes, which was now removed.
Now he was on board the steamer which was bearing him home. The weather had become mild and summerlike; it had been raining, but towards evening it began to clear. He would get to Hellebergene in fine weather, and by moonlight. It grew colder; he spoke to no one, nor had he eyes for anything about him.
The image of his mother, wrapped in her long shawl--that was all the company he had. Only his mother! No one but his mother! Suppose the telegram had but frightened her the more--that to see HIM now appeared the worst that could happen. To read such a crushing doom for her whole life, and that from him! She was not so constituted that it could be cancelled by his asking forgiveness and returning to her. On the contrary, it would precipitate the worst, it must do so.
The violent perspiration began again; he had to put on more wraps. His terror took possession of him: he was forced to contemplate the most awful possibilities--to picture to himself what death his mother would choose!
He sprang to his feet and paced up and down. He longed to throw himself into somebody's arms, to cry aloud. But he knew well that he must not let such words escape him.--He HAD to picture her as she handled the guns, until she relinquished the idea of using any of them. Then he imagined her recalling the deepest hiding-places in the woods--where were they all?
HE recalled them, one after another. No, not in any of THOSE, for she wished to hide herself where she would never be found! There was the cement-bed; it went sheer down there, and the water was deep!--He clung to the rigging to prevent himself from falling. He prayed to be released from these terrors. But he saw her floating there, rocked by the rippling water. Was it the face which was uppermost, or was it the body, which for a while floated higher than the face?
His thoughts were partially diverted from this by people coming up to ask him if he were ill. He got something warm and strong to drink, and now the steamer approached the part of the coast with which he was familiar. They passed the opening into Hellebergene, for one has to go first to the town, and thence in a boat. It now became the question, whether a boat had been sent for him. In that case his mother was alive, and would welcome him. But if there was no boat, then a message from the gulf had been sent instead!
And there was no boat!--
For a moment his senses failed him; only confused sounds fell on his ear. But then he seemed to emerge from a dark passage. He must get to Hellebergene! He must see what had happened; be would go and search!
By this time it was growing dark. He went on shore and looked round for a boat as though half asleep. He could hardly speak, but he did not give in till he got the men together and hired the boat. He took the helm himself, and bade them row with all their might. He knew every peak in the grey twilight. They might depend on him, and row on without looking round. Soon they had passed the high land and were in among the islands. This time they did not come out to meet him; they all seemed gathered there to repel him. No boat had been sent; there was, therefore, nothing more for him to do here. No boat had been sent, because he had forfeited his place here. Like savage beasts, with bristles erect, the peaks and islands arrayed themselves against him. "Row on, my lads," he cried, for now arose again in him that dormant power which only manifested itself in his utmost need.
"How is it with you, my boy? I am growing weary. Courage, now, and forward!"
Again that voice outside himself--a man's voice. Was it his father's?
Whether or not it were his father's voice, here before his father's home he would struggle against Fate.
In man's direst necessity, what he has failed in and what he can do seem to encounter each other. And thus, just as the boat had cleared the point and the islands and was turning into the bay, he raised himself to his full height, and the boatmen looked at him in astonishment. He still grasped the rudder-lines, and looked as though he were about to meet an enemy. Or did he hear anything? was it the sound of oars?
Yes, they heard them now as well. From the strait near the inlet a boat was approaching them. She loomed large on the smooth surface of the water and shot swiftly along.
"Is that a boat from Hellebergene?" shouted Rafael. His voice shook.
"Yes," came a voice out of the darkness, and he recognised the bailiff's voice. "Is it Rafael?"
"Yes. Why did you not come before?"
"The telegram has only just arrived."
He sat down. He did not speak. He became suddenly incapable of uttering a word.
The other boat turned and followed them. Rafael nearly ran his boat on shore; he forgot that he was steering. Very soon they cleared the narrow passage which led into the inner bay, and rounded the last headland, and there!--there lay Hellebergene before them in a blaze of light! From cellar to attic, in every single window, it glowed, it streamed with light, and at that moment another light blazed out from the cairn on the hill-top.
It was thus that his mother greeted him. He sobbed; and the boatmen heard him, and at the same time noticed that it had grown suddenly light. They turned round, and were so engrossed in the spectacle that they forgot to row.
"Come! you must let me get on," was all that he could manage to say.
His sufferings were forgotten as he leapt from the boat. Nor did it disturb him that he did not meet his mother at the landing- place, or near the house, nor see her on the terrace. He simply rushed up the stairs and opened the door.
The candles in the windows gave but little light within. Indeed, something had been put in the windows for them to stand on, so that the interior was half in shadow. But he had come in from the semi-darkness. He looked round for her, but he heard some one crying at the other end of the room. There she sat, crouched in the farthest corner of the sofa, with her feet drawn up under her, as in old days when she was frightened. She did not stretch out her arms; she remained huddled together. But he bent over her, knelt down, laid his face on hers, wept with her. She had grown fragile, thin, haggard, ah! as though she could be blown away. She let him take her in his arms like a child and clasp her to his breast; let him caress and kiss her. Ah, how ethereal she had become! And those eyes, which at last he saw, now looked tearfully out from their large orbits, but more innocently than a bird from its nest. Over her broad forehead she had wound a large silk handkerchief in turban fashion. It hung down behind. She wished to conceal the thinness of her hair. He smiled to recognise her again in this. More spiritualised, more ethereal in her beauty, her innermost aspirations shone forth without effort. Her thin hands caressed his hair, and now she gazed into his eyes.
"Rafael, my Rafael!" She twined her arms round him and murmured welcome. But soon she raised her head and resumed a sitting posture. She wished to speak. He was beforehand with her.
"Forgive the letter," he whispered with beseeching eyes and voice, and hands upraised.
"I saw the distress of your soul," was the whispered answer, for it could not be spoken aloud. "And there was nothing to forgive," she added. She had laid her face against his again. "And it was quite true, Rafael," she murmured.
She must have passed through terrible days and nights here, he thought, before she could say that.
"Mother, mother! what a fearful time!"
Her little hand sought his: it was cold; it lay in his like an egg in a deserted nest. He warmed it and took the other as well.
"Was not the illumination splendid?" she said. And now her voice was like a child's.
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