The Tale of Balen


"All last night I heard nothing else but 'Have some coffee; have some coffee.' If I went to sleep for a moment I dreamed that her finger was pressing mine; but when I woke with a start I heard her say, 'Good evening, Waldo. Have some coffee!'

"Is this madness?

"I have not eaten a mouthful today. This evening I go and propose to her.

If she refuses me I shall go and kill myself tomorrow. There is a dam of water close by. The sheep have drunk most of it up, but there is still enough if I tie a stone to my neck.

"It is a choice between death and madness. I can endure no more. If this should be the last letter you ever get from me, think of me tenderly, and forgive me. Without her, life would be a howling wilderness, a long tribulation. She is my affinity; the one love of my life, of my youth, of my manhood; my sunshine; my God-given blossom.

"'They never loved who dreamed that they loved once, And who saith, 'I loved once'?--Not angels, whose deep eyes look down through realms of light!'

"Your disconsolate brother, on what is, in all probability, the last and distracted night of his life.

"Gregory Nazianzen Rose.

"P.S.--Tell mother to take care of my pearl studs. I left them in the wash-hand-stand drawer. Don't let the children get hold of them.

"P.P.S.--I shall take this letter with me to the farm. If I turn down one corner you may know I have been accepted; if not, you may know it is all up with your heartbroken brother, G.N.R."

Gregory having finished this letter, read it over with much approval, put it in an envelope, addressed it, and sat contemplating the inkpot, somewhat relieved in mind.

The evening turned out chilly and very windy after the day's heat. From afar off, as Gregory neared the homestead on the brown pony, he could distinguish a little figure in a little red cloak at the door of the cow- kraal. Em leaned over the poles that barred the gate, and watched the frothing milk run through the black fingers of the herdsman, while the unwilling cows stood with tethered heads by the milking poles. She had thrown the red cloak over her own head, and held it under her chin with a little hand, to keep from her ears the wind, that playfully shook it, and tossed the little fringe of yellow hair into her eyes.

"Is it not too cold for you to be standing here?" said Gregory, coming softly close to her.

"Oh, no; it is so nice. I always come to watch the milking. That red cow with the short horns is bringing up the calf of the white cow that died.

She loves it so--just as if it were her own. It is so nice to see her lick its little ears. Just look!"

"The clouds are black. I think it is going to rain tonight," said Gregory.

"Yes," answered Em, looking up as well as she could for the little yellow fringe.

"But I'm sure you must be cold," said Gregory, and put his hand under the cloak, and found there a small fist doubled up, soft, and very warm. He held it fast in his hand.

"Oh, Em, I love you better than all the world besides! Tell me, do you love me a little?"

"Yes, I do," said Em, hesitating, and trying softly to free her hand.

"Better than everything; better than all the world, darling?" he asked, bending down so low that the yellow hair was blown into his eyes.

"I don't know," said Em, gravely. "I do love you very much; but I love my cousin who is at school, and Waldo, very much. You see I have known them so long!"

"Oh, Em, do not talk to me so coldly!" Gregory cried, seizing the little arm that rested on the gate, and pressing it till she was half afraid. The herdsman had moved away to the other end of the kraal now, and the cows, busy with their calves, took no notice of the little human farce. "Em, if you talk so to me I will go mad! You must love me, love me better than all! You must give yourself to me. I have loved you since that first moment when I saw you walking by the stone wall with the jug in your hands.

You were made for me, created for me! I will love you till I die! Oh, Em, do not be so cold, so cruel to me!"

He held her arm so tightly that her fingers relaxed their hold, and the cloak fluttered down on to the ground, and the wind played more roughly than ever with the little yellow head.

"I do love you very much," she said; "but I do not know if I want to marry you. I love you better than Waldo, but I can't tell if I love you better than Lyndall. If you would let me wait for a week I think perhaps I could tell you."

Gregory picked up the cloak and wrapped it round her.

"If you could but love me as I love you," he said; "but no woman can love as a man can. I will wait till Saturday. I will not once come near you till then. Good-bye! Oh, Em," he said, turning again, and twining his arm about her, and kissing her surprised little mouth, "if you are not my wife I cannot live. I have never loved another woman, and I never shall!-- never, never!"

"You make me afraid," said Em. "Come, let us go, and I will fill your pail."

"I want no milk. Good-bye! You will not see me again till Saturday."

Late that night, when every one else had gone to bed, the yellow-haired little woman stood alone in the kitchen. She had come to fill the kettle for the next morning's coffee, and now stood before the fire. The warm reflection lit the grave old-womanish little face, that was so unusually thoughtful this evening.

"Better than all the world; better than everything; he loves me better than everything!" She said the words aloud, as if they were more easy to believe if she spoke them so. She had given out so much love in her little life, and had got none of it back with interest. Now one said, "I love you better than all the world." One loved her better than she loved him. How suddenly rich she was. She kept clasping and unclasping her hands. So a beggar feels who falls asleep on the pavement wet and hungry, and who wakes in a palace-hall with servants and lights, and a feast before him. Of course the beggar's is only a dream, and he wakes from it; and this was real.

Gregory had said to her, "I will love you as long as I live." She said the words over and over to herself like a song.

"I will send for him tomorrow, and I will tell him how I love him back," she said.