Magdalen (Machar)/Chapter 12

XII

 

OVER a long and narrow ridge, between two fields of grain, her foot slipping at every step, Lucy hurried, timidly, like a hunted deer. The waving ears beat against her breast, the monotonous chirping of the crickets sounded about her like the ticking of a hundred clocks. In the azure height unseen larks poured forth their clear tones; the air was astir with those dry odors which rise from the fields in July.

Around her were fields, broad fields. Their surfaces rippled in light waves, like a pale-yellow sea.

Lucy was hastening on in a dull, whirling stupor. It seemed to her as though there were an endless, swollen, terrible expanse in her soul. Somehody within it called out again: “The end!” That word hovered about like a bird gone astray. “The end . . . the end. . . .” Her lips now and then whispered it aloud like an empty echo. She sped on mechanically, without thinking, always onward, onward, onward. . . .

The narrow ridge soon came to an end. Lucy entered the highway,—she recognized it,—it was the broad swath of dust that ran between fields, cut through a few villages, now went down, now again rose; here it turned, there it went straight, like an endless strip of cloth, and ran on and on, until at last it appeared on the horizon as a narrow, grey ribbon. The telegraph posts hummed their monotonous song. The rattle of wagons as they passed over it with slow, measured motion, resounded afar.—It was only a few weeks before that she had travelled over that road, full of happiness, to a new life. . .

There below, behind her, lay that town. . . . The curved roofs and the walls of the houses were plainly outlined against the azure of the heavens. Here and there a window glistened like a square of steel. From the chimneys a bluish smoke arose in a light cloud. The black cupola of the church-tower with its golden spire stood out against the sky. The surface of the Elbe glittered like a stream of mercury. She saw the cemetery, its cypresses and crosses, its white walls, and the fields which ran straight to the right and left of it. Long roads, with avenues of trees, wound through them. Towards one side of the town lay the castle, with its brown roof and colored tower, and the old trees in the park. Beyond the Elbe were the grove, the church of the pilgrims, the roofs of houses, and farther off, the blue forest and the villages that looked like a handful of bright dots; and still farther away was a grey streak, where the sky met the undulating earth.

Everything was merged in the full splendor of the sun. The air was astir with the burning heat. That town appeared to Lucy like a hostile being: immovable, firm, haughty, shut against her, and driving her into the distance.

She locked once more into the castle park. It seemed to her that she conld see the bench that was hidden behind the branches. She saw the whirling points around that tower,—a swarm of swallows. She glanced at the cemetery: there . . . in that place it was . . . that black grave, covered but an hour ago. . . . An hour ago? No, it was long, long ago, a month ago, and maybe even more. . . .

She recognized the slate roof of the manor. It seemed to her that she could see through it. . . . The old lady in her white cap was walking through the rooms, calling: “Lucy, Lucy!” The plaint strongly clutched at her heart. . . . And did she know already? . . . She had probably run out to the gate, and looked into the fields, shading her eyes with her hand: “Lucy, Lucy!” That familiar voice penetrated her soul, and suddenly she was filled with anxiety and fear, that they would find her, would take her back to that hell.—She walked more firmly, more swiftly upon that road towards Prague, towards Prague. . . .

A firm, clear intention suddenly, flashed through her soul: there, under the chain bridge, the greenish stream of the Moldau billowed invitingly . . . there it was quiet . . . hardly ever did any one pass by. . . . The abrupt side of the Summer Mountain rose to the right. . . . There the din of the water falling from the dam sounded hollow and melancholy. One leap from the railing,—and there below, there would be peace. . . .

She walked and walked. . . . Then she looked at herself with sudden calm: “Behold, such is life. . . . Thus it will end,” she said to herself.

The telegraph poles, the young trees that cast their oblique shadows upon the road, the heaps of gravel that lay there in gravelike mounds, the oblong fields,—the whole horizon began slowly to recede.

Lucy continued thinking of the end. She went to it without remorse, without complaining, without resistance. Nay, a certain weak contentment awoke in her: she calmly considered that she would live as purified in the memory of the people that knew her, that the old lady and all the people who had wronged her so much would think of her, and that Jiří would be torn by remorse for today’s happenings. . . . She forgave him, forgave all. . . . In a few hours her lot would be: peace, peace!

Proudly she surveyed the landscape: a new scene. The country stretched out before her as though laid on a table. The oblong fields, the meadows, the villages,—everything was clad in colors, and breathed softly in the sunshine. . . . The crickets chirped all around her, and in the height above trilled the skylarks, and the swelling cloudlets hung lightly in the azure heavens. . . .

She walked, and walked. . . . Her shadow fell obliquely before her over the dusty road, and the telegraph poles, the young trees, the heaps of gravel, the fields,—the whole broad country slowly receded behind her and melted away. . . .

She stopped but once. It was where the old lady had grasped her hand and had said: “We are at home now.”

She looked about her: two round red towers rose above the horizon. Their gilt cupolas glittered in the blue sky like two stars. . . .

And again she walked. . . . There lay everything. . . . There life would flow on steadily, as to-day, so to-morrow. . . . Jiří would soon marry, and the old lady would find some reparation. . . . The dead man would decay in the peace of the black earth . . . to-morrow his mother would go to the cemetery with flowers . . . an unspeakable pang thrilled her for a moment, only for a moment,—and she looked again proudly at the landscape.

She passed through a small village of low houses, straw-thatched, with tiny windows, and small yards with heaps of manure, flocks of chickens, and little children playing before the doors. Here and there an old man was warming his parched body in the heat of the sun. A dog lying upon the threshold peacefully fixed his calm, black eyes upon her,—everything, everything seemed so happy, so contented to her. She did not in the least begrudge them their happiness,—what was the little sun in which a man warmed himself for a moment, in comparison with what was in store for her?

She walked on and on. . . . Beside the road ran an avenue of shady cherry trees. Their bark glistened with a brownish violet sheen, and upon their branches gleamed an abundance of black fruit.

“Where will my body be, when they are picking these cherries?” Lucy thought calmly.

At the left was a small pond. The heat of the sun beat upon it in a stream of light. Nearby was a mill . . . its monotonous click re-echoed in the distance.

And again all was quiet about her. The telegraph posts, the young trees, the heaps of gravel, the meadows, and the fields,—the whole landscape faded away behind her. . . . Half an hour later she again passed through a village. Near the road lay a cemetery. Crosses and trees towered above the white wall.

“These cemeteries,” it occurred to her, “are all alike . . . everywhere they take away that which is dearest tous. . . .

And she walked and walked and thought: even thus, somewhere in the mountains, in a distant village, her mother’s dust was decaying; and there, behind her, they had this day covered up in the cemetery that head with its strange, black eyes. . . . In what clay would her body soon be lying? . . .

Now and then she met a solitary passer-by . . . or a wagon . . . or a coach. . . . Here and there, in the ditch, a traveller slept soundly upon his wallet. . . . Otherwise all was quiet. . . .

In the meantime the sun was slowly setting behind her and to one side. Her shadow grew and stretched out, with long head and shaking arms,—like a monster it moved on before her. Fatigue began to overcome her. Her thoughts weighed heavily upon her. Faintness made her close her eyes, but she walked on with a surer step.

The country was changing.

Lucy no longer looked about her. Her eyes were fixed upon the road, which ran on farther and farther, grey and uninteresting. Upon it were parallel wheel tracks that seemed to touch in the distance. And the trees along the road seemed to disappear in monotonous succession from behind, and the wires above her head buzzed in their melancholy strain. . . .

And again she passed through a village.

She no longer looked about her. Her fatigue and faintness were increasing. In her head, her back, her limbs, she felt a leaden weight. Her legs bent unconsciously forward. She heard a heavy, hollow sound in her head, and the blood beating londly in her temples. The circle of her thoughts was becoming narrower, and hovered about one constant point: there, at the bridge, all would be over. . . .

And she walked and walked, until she entered a long, seemingly endless avenue of old chestnut trees. They were in bloom when she had seen them first. Now it was all past, The green burrs stood out in cone-shaped clusters.

The black, cracked trunks of the trees dragged by her.

As though in a dream Lucy remembered how the old lady, looking there into the distance through her black lorgnette, pointed out to her the villages, the roads, and the summits.

She looked about her with dim eyes. There they were, Ještěd, Řip,and Milešovka. They stood out a dull blue against the ruddy sky.

And the trees, black and monotonous, passed by and disappeared, one by one.

A thin layer of dust from the road lay upon her cheeks, and she felt it on her eyelashes. “I will wash it off in a few hours,” she thought.

Then a light opening appeared in the distance. She walked and walked, and the opening kept growing.

Finally the avenue was behind her. A broad plain stretched out before her. “There is that valley,—Vysočany, Libeň, Prague,” she thought.

The red glow from the sky quivered on the yellow waves of the grain fields. Here were the acres of rape, in which late blooms shone like a shower of ducats. The straight-rowed acres of beets displayed their bright green hue by the side of dark patches of potatoes. The figures of men who were hastening home from their work were sharply outhned against the greyish-blue heavens.

She walked and walked. The road descended into the valley.

On the right lay Prague, shrouded in grey smoke,—like some phantom in a weird story. Hradčany threateningly towered to the sky, and against it the glow of the setting sun looked like pools of fresh blood.

Accidentally she glanced down at the grey sea. “There, in that place must be the bridge,” the thought flashed through her numbed brain.

She began to descend.

She paid no heed to anything. Her exhausted body moved onward like a machine. The noise in her head sounded more hollow . . . at times she thought it was the rush of the water. As if in a dream she passed by a sugar refinery, crossed the glistening railway track, and walked through Vysočany.

The road was now filled with life,—men and women were hastening home from their work.

Bits of low conversation about every-day cares and interests reached her ear, but she did not hear them. . . . She crossed Libeň, and went through the row of acacias past the Home of the Invalids. The tinkling of the tramway bells, the clatter of the city was already audible. . . .

She entered Karlín. She felt the pavement under her feet. The air was heavier here, and, full of heat and stifling exhalations, it breathed upon her. Her faintness suddenly disappeared. She took a deep breath, and looked around her. The street was noisy with men and vehicles. . . . From the shops streamed a yellow light that gleamed at a distance, as though it were still in vain struggling with the daylight.

The nearness of the whirling life buoyed her. She hastened on.

“Here, these people are walking about, laughing and talking,” she thought; “each has his little world, and in it his joys, his cares, his sorrows. . . . This their world will disappear with them. No one else will inherit it,—they will all live their . . . what was it he said that time in the park?” That sentence had never before occurred to her,—indeed, she had not heard it that time,—the words only fell accidentally upon her soul, and that soul had found them this day: “‘And that life! It is something temporary, and it does not make much difference how we go through it.’ Thus we all continue to live our temporary lives. . . .

She walked and walked. . . . The streets dinned and clattered. . . . She crossed Karlín and Poříč.

She was thinking how it would all be in a few minutes: the greenish water would enter her mouth, her ears, her nose . . . the whirling waters would carry her down, and then far away, somewhere near the dam.

Fright and terror chilled her bones.

“This is something temporary, something temporary, and it does not make much difference how I end it,” she thought, strengthening herself.

“Oh, that terrible, terrible water!” And again she was frightened.

The streets crossed each other, and everywhere, everywhere that life. . . .

“See their faces, forms, voices, motions, and dresses, their cares and their joys,—and they live, they live, they live. . . .

Then she entered the tangle of narrow streets.

Moisture is borne through the air; ill odors, growing more intense, are wafted through the short, narrow, crooked streets. The pulse of life is beating here in more boisterous measure. A variegated crowd of people surges past the old, grey houses, talking, laughing, jesting; laborers who come in their grimy clothes after having received their pay; soldiers and loiterers; factory girls with yellow faces, their hair combed over their brows; prattling domestics vociferate around the water basin; women, with their pale babes in their arms, are standing at the doors of the houses, conversing in shrill voices; in the basement taverns the gaslight, subdued through the red curtains, already flickers, and here and there are heard the sounds of the accordion. The pulse of life is beating strong.

Lucy stopped. . . . At a corner rose a freshly whitewashed house; it towered by a whole story above the red roofs of its neighbors. The blinds were drawn in all the windows; a dead silence pervaded the place,—she recognized it. . . .

She had only a few hundred steps more to go before she would reach the water. . . . Her legs were powerless and began to tremble, and her blood boiled furiously. Red circles flitted before her eyes and swam upwards. She summoned all her strength, and walked the few hundred steps. She stopped again.

What quiet reigned all around her! Only the water down there spoke mysteriously.

The bright walls of the Concert Hall stood at the right. Before her the bridge stretched out its grey arm. Beyond, the river Hradčany towered mightily against the pure, golden sky.

The water below roared and roared.

She went as far as the railing. . . . Toward the left, in the park, were a few people,—lovers, tenderly embracing each other,—perhaps they would not notice her. . . .

How ghastly and weird the water of the dam roared there at one side!

How the greenish monster rushed against the pier of the bridge! How cold was the air that watery mass exhaled!

A terror, such as she had never before felt, clutched at her throat. Her legs refused to obey . . . she was about to fall . . . red circles flew before her eyes. . . .

Her soul was suddenly cut in two; and yet both halves were living, and discussing with each other. The one seemed to be wringing its white hands: “To live, oh, to live! After all, this life is beautiful! After all, we live but once! After all, it is life!”

And the other spoke in a hollow voice: “Down, down! You must die!”

And again the first: “To live, oh, to live! You cannot die, you have not the strength, and you have no cause to die!”

And the second: “Down, down!” but it whispered it so sadly, and in so trembling a voice, that it was painful to bear it.

Cold perspiration in small pearls dropped down her brow. Her knees grew weak from fear. Terror clutched her white throat still tighter. Her glassy eyes bulged out as she looked down into the ghastly green,—and the two halves of her soul continued struggling with each other. . . .

Lucy suddenly motioned with her hand, and faintly whispered: “Perhaps to-morrow. . . .

And she turned back . . . she dragged herself hurriedly away, as if crushed. Her head drooped to one side, like a flower half plucked. Her hands hung down as though dead. Her sunshade struck the stones of the pavement with its point. She walked along in ber black dress which daintily veiled her breast, and walked back into the gay whirlpool of men. She walked slowly, as though going to the gallows. She went only a few hundred steps . . . to the house where the blinds were drawn in all the windows . . . she raised her hand . . . she pressed the handle of the door . . . she opened it. . . .

Eight o’clock. The bells are tolling over Prague. The proud harmonious tones fall upon this scene of animation. A sacred moment. Over this extinct sultry day, over this sea of red roofs, over this varied mass of spires, over this grey that is flooding the tangle of sweltering streets,—over all that is there in motion, over its empty pleasure, its sorrow, pride, misery, passion, hypocrisy, and love, over this weak, puny, ephemeral human “ego,” the hollow brass sends forth into the vault of heaven its Ave Maria!

 

THE END