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"It is not true, is it?"
Nor did it occur to Andor to lie to her about it all; the thought of denial never for one moment entered his head. The fatalism peculiar to this Oriental race made the man scorn to shield himself behind a lie.
Bela was now for ever silent; the young Count would scorn to speak! His own protestations in the ear of this loving, simple-minded girl, against the accusations of a woman of the despised race--jealous, bitter, avowedly half-crazy--needed only to be uttered in order to be whole-heartedly believed. But even the temptation to pursue such a course never a.s.sailed his soul. With the limitless sky above him, the vast immensity of the plains stretching out unbroken far away, with the land under his feet and the scent of the maize-stubble in his nostrils, he was too proud of himself as a man to stoop to such a lie.
So when Elsa spoke to him and asked him that one straight and firm question, he raised his head and looked straight into her tear-dimmed eyes.
"What, Elsa?" he asked quietly.
"That you let Bela go to his death--just like that--as Klara said . . .
that is not all true, is it?"
And as she returned his look--fearlessly and trustfully--she knew that the question which she had thus put to him was really an affirmation of what she felt must be the truth. But already Andor had raised his voice in hot and pa.s.sionate protest.
"He was a brute to you, Elsa," he affirmed with all the strength of his manhood, the power of his love, which, in spite of all, would not believe in its own misery; "he would have made you wretchedly unhappy . . . he . . ."
"You did do it, then?" she broke in quietly.
"I did it because of you, Elsa," he cried, and his own firm voice was now half-choked with sobs. "He made you unhappy even though you were not yet bound to him by marriage. Once you were his wife he would have made you miserable . . . he would have bullied you . . . beaten you, perhaps.
I heard him out under the verandah speaking to you like the sneering brute that he was. . . . And then he kissed you . . . and I . . . But even then I didn't give him the key. . . . Klara lied when she said that. I didn't urge him to take it, even--I did not speak about the key.
It was lying on the table where I had put it--he took it up--I did not give it him."
"But you let him take it. You knew that he meant to visit Klara, and that Leopold was on the watch outside. Yet you let him go. . . ."
"I let him go. . . . I was nearly mad then with rage at the way he had treated you all day. . . . His taking that key was a last insult put upon you on the eve of your wedding day. . . . The thought of it got into my blood like fire, when I saw his cruel leer and heard his sneers.
. . . Later on, I thought better of it . . . calmer thoughts had got into my brain . . . reason, sober sense. . . . I had gone back to the presbytery, and meant to go to bed--I went out, I swear it by G.o.d that I went out prepared to warn him, to help him if I could. The whole village was deserted, it was the hour of supper at the barn. I heard the church clock strike the half-hour after ten. I worked my way round to the back of Goldstein's house and in the yard I saw Bela lying--dead."
"And you might have raised a finger to save him at first . . . and you didn't do it."
"Not at first . . . and after that it was too late. . . ."
"You have done a big, big wrong, Andor," she said slowly.
"Wrong?" he cried, whilst once more the old spirit of defiance fired him--the burning love in him, the wrath at seeing her unhappy. "Wrong?
Because I did not prevent one miserable brute being put out of the way of doing further harm? By the living G.o.d, Elsa, I do not believe that it was wrong. I didn't send him to his death, I did not see or speak to Leopold Hirsch, I merely let Fate or G.o.d Himself work His way with him.
I did not say a word to him that might have induced him to take that key. He picked it up from the table, and every evil thought came into his head then and there. He didn't even care about Klara and a silly, swaggering flirtation with her, he only wanted to insult you, to shame you, to show you that he was the master--and meant to have his way in all things. . . . And this he did because--bar his pride in your beauty--he really hated you and meant to treat you ill. He meant to harm you, Elsa--my own dear dove . . . my angel from heaven . . . for whom I would have died, and would die to-day, if my death could bring you happiness. . . . I let him go and Leopold Hirsch killed him . . . if he had lived, he would have made your life one long misery. . . . Was it my fault that Leopold Hirsch killed him?--killed him at the moment when he was trying to do you as great harm as he could? By G.o.d, Elsa, I swear that I don't believe it was my fault . . . it was the will of G.o.d--G.o.d would not punish me for not interfering with His will. . . . Why, it wouldn't be justice, Elsa . . . it wouldn't be justice."
His voice broke in one agonized sob. He had put all his heart, all his feelings into that pa.s.sionate appeal. He did not believe that he had done wrong, he had not on his soul the sense of the brand of Cain.
Rough, untutored, a son of the soil, he saw no harm in sweeping out of the way a noisome creature who spreads evil and misery. And Elsa's was also a simple and untutored soul, even though in her calmer temperament the wilder pa.s.sions of men had found no echo. True and steadfast in love, her mind was too simple to grasp at sophistry, to argue about right or wrong; her feelings were her guide, and even while Andor--burning with love and impatience--argued and clung desperately to his own point of view, she felt only the desire to comfort and to succour--above all, to love--she was just a girl--Andor's sweetheart and not his judge. G.o.d alone was that! G.o.d would punish if He so desired--indeed, He had punished already, for never had such sorrow descended in Andor's heart before, of that she felt quite sure.
He became quite calm after awhile. Even his pa.s.sion seemed to have died down under the weight of this immense sorrow.
And the peace which comes from the plains when they are wrapped in the darkness of the night descended on the humble peasant-girl's soul; she saw things as they really were, not as men's turbulent desires would have them be--above all, not as a woman's idealism would picture them.
She no longer had the desire to run away--and if the distant, unknown land was to wrap and enfold her out of the ken of this real, cruel world, then it should enfold her and Andor together, and her love would wrap him and comfort him too.
So now--when he had finished speaking, when his fervent appeal to G.o.d and to her had died down on his quivering lips--she came close up to him and placed her small, cool hand upon his arm.
"Andor," she said gently; and her voice shook and was almost undistinguishable from the sweet, soft sounds that filled the limitless plain. "I am only an ignorant peasant-girl--you and I are only like children, of course, beside the clever people who can argue about such things. But this I do know, that there is no sin in the world so great but it can be blotted out and forgiven. You may have done a big, big, wrong, Andor--or perhaps you are not much to blame . . . I don't know how that is . . . Pater Bonifacius will tell you, no doubt, when next you make your confession to him. . . . But I am too ignorant to understand . . . the plains have taught me all I know . . . and . . .
and . . . I shall always love you, Andor . . . and not judge what you have done. . . . G.o.d will do that. . . . I can only love you. . . . That is all!"
Her voice died away in the soughing of the wind. For a moment or two he stood beside her--not daring to speak--or to move--or to take that cool, little white hand in his and kiss it--for now she seemed to him more pure than she had ever been--almost holy--like a saint--hallowed by the perfect selflessness of her love.
And as he stood beside her--with head bent and throat choked with sobs of infinite happiness--the darkness of the night fell wholly upon the plain. Nothing around but just this darkness, filled with all the sounds of hidden, pulsating life; overhead the clouds chased one another ceaselessly and restlessly, and from far away the dull murmur of the water came as a faint and rumbling echo.
Andor could no longer see Elsa now, not even her silhouette; but her hand was still on his arm, and he felt the nearness of her presence, and knew that henceforth, throughout the years that were to come, a happiness such as he had never even dared to dream of would be his and hers too, until the day when they would leave the beautiful, mysterious plains for that hidden land beyond the glowing horizon, beyond the rosy dawn and the crimson sunset.
Andor slowly fell on his knees and pressed his burning lips on the small, white hand. Just then in the east there was a rent in the clouds, a lining of silver appeared behind the darkness; the rent became wider and ever wider; the silver turned to lemon-gold, and slowly, majestically, the waning moon--honey-coloured and brilliant--emerged triumphantly, queening it over the plain.
The silvery radiance lit up the vast, silent expanse of nothingness, the huge dome of the sky, the limitless area of stubble and stumps of hemp and dead sunflowers, and where the mysteries of the earth merged in those of the sky--it touched with its subtle radiance that unknown land on the horizon, far away, which no child of the plain has ever reached as yet.
And from the distant village came softly sounding the tinkle of the church bell, tolling for evening prayer.
Hand in hand, Andor and Elsa wandered back to the village--together--hand in hand with memory--hand in hand in never-fading love and understanding and simple trust--hand in hand upon the bosom of the illimitable plain.