Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit
(Out of Nothing, Nothing Comes)
The story that won honorable mention in MacLean's Short Story Contest
ALBERTA C. TRIMBLE
THE gulf stretched a limitless sheet of shimmering iridescence straight to the gates of heaven; crimson gates which burned ruby-red beneath a dome of
Thus it appeared to sixteen-year Olga, standing motionless as a young goddess on her pedestal of flat tidewashed rock, fairy tales still in the eyes no less blue than the sweep of Russian sky above her; warmth in the cheeks flushed the pale rose-tint which lined the soft cloud cradled like an angel-wing near the rosy ether; passion in the sweet curved lips which had caught the fire of the sunset, and all womanly ideals in the straight majestic still fullness of her body.
Then—it seemed—the crimson gates parted and from heaven itself emerged a boat silhouetted in ebony against the flaming background, frothing the glowing sea. The girl clasped her hands to her heaving breast with the beauty and marvel and—and significance of it. Was this—Maria!—to end her waiting, her years of orphanloneliness, her struggle to keep herself for the great moment her heart had told her would come?
"Olga Sokolof prays,” sneered a coarse voice from amongst the group of women and girls a scant half-dozen rods to her left. It was Katyryna Helldt, sister of a swaggering male whom Olga despised, who spoke. She was ecstatically wriggling in the sand her gross toes unprisoned from the long northern winter.
"She has need to pray,” said the girl’s mother, adding darkly a3 she drew her dingy platok about her bent shoulders. "It'3 in the blood. Nikolaus Sokolof was aye a rover. Marya, now; in Riga they call her ‘The Magdalena'. It is just time-biding until his other daughter goes his way.”
The little assemblage listened avidly to old Anna, who had been bom with a caul, shook their gray, or gray-
shawled, heads gravely and stared at Olga, who might have been carved in one piece with the rock for all the hearing she gave them. They hated her for this immobility, this sense of being entirely sufficient unto herself.
“Making her own laws,” muttered one. “Shod feet and bared head.”
Olga had eyes for nothing but the ship, which was drawing nearer, its black graying, the trailing smoke from its lone funnel a braided oriflamme, which flaunted itself like a lusty trumpeter-herald . . . Now could be seen figures moving against the sky . . . In a little, men walking . Soon, arm-waved caps.
“There’s Jan,” shrilled Katyryna, dancing till her bare knees showed. She loved Jan—when he was returning from a voyage; it might mean gifts.
“.Jan!” echoed the old mother, her specks of black eyes softening at the home-coming of her first-born. She hoped he had brought his sister the cerise shawl upon which her mind was set. And a rosary. Girls require rosaries. “If the boat does not stop at Alor, you, Katyryna, had best walk into Riga, so Jan will not have to walk back alone.”
Katyryna snorted. She knew what her mother meant; Jan Helldt and Riga and vodka. Twelve miles there and
But the small freighter, with much puff-puffing, paused at the end of the long pier. Olga was sure it must in
obedience to her will.
The gabbling crowd had picked themselves up and
run, shoving and bunting, to the dock; but she remained motionless on her pedestal. It was a rest after driving a plough all day up and down, up and down; and she had no brother to welcome, no one in all the world but Marya. and Marya had bade her remain on the farm.
Olga threw up her arms to shade her eyes from the last red glare in order that she might see who crossed the gang-plank . . . Two men: Jan and another.
Straight from the heaven-boat the latter, carrying his cap in one hand and a battered valise in the other, strode long-limbed towards the girl on the boulder, his keen eyes taking in every new detail of her wholesome beauty —the heavy braids of hair wound round and round till her head was covered as with a cap of massed gold floss, the clear freshness of her skin, the neat blue cotton dress which revealed her splendid form, the sturdy brushed shoes, and finally the frank deep eyes.
He tossed his cap to the ground and dropped his bag at his feet as with both hands he reached up to help her to his level.
“Who are you, calling me in from the sea?” he asked tensely, still holding her exultantly.
“I am Olga Sokolof,” she replied in a voice steady, albeit lit by a triumphant laugh, her fair face flushing at his seeking her out. This man of her dreams, tall, broad-shouldered, thickly black of hair, with a wide face illuminated by kind, emphatic, brown eyes which laughed and implored and despaired, all at once? This man from out the crimson gates!
“Olga Sokolof,” he repeated, musing, searching her soul. He had not seen her, felt her, till this instant: but he had dreamed of her all his life—as her eyes said she had of him. Soul and heart and body. The end of a quest. Ah! . . . “Would you not prefer Olga Fedorovitch? I," with primitive simplicity, “am Ivan.”
“Ivan.” She felt something like a physical fluttering of her heart to meet his. This was the way. Love But as they walked towards her neatly-thatched cottage, newly-whitewashed, her young ewe, big and clumsy, nuzzled her knee . . .
IT WAS six miles to Riga and a priest, but they walked it hand in hand, and were back by midnight, Ursa Major swinging low over their two heads which made but one shadow in the moonlight. She did not quite comprehend him when he likened her to the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, calling a haven to mariners across the sea; it was the will of God that he should interrupt his journey to the old folks to find her. But she agreed that America was the Promised Land; that when the crop had been taken off in the fall and they had made their visit to his parents at Revel they would journey to America and become wealthy.
That was May. Olga worked harder than ever with Ivan to help her. Every inch of the tiny farm they sowed; they cut treble the amount of hay of any other summer; and laughed and loved every moment of it.
In the evenings they would stroll down to the beach and sit side by side on the worn boulder, Beda and her lamps at their feet, she telling him of the boat that came through the crimson gates, he recounting the wonders of America. They were very happy.
Anna Helldt, who had been born with the prophetic veil, saw and sneered
“It will not last. It was so with her mother and The Rover—at first. I told them at their betrothal, twentysix years back. And was it for nothing that I was born with a caul? Now,” lowering her rasping voice till it charged her small audience with terror, “a black shadow hovers over the earth. What it is I know not. Plague, famine, flood, fire,” ending with a curdling shriek, “destruction.”
If Olga and Ivan heard these things they heeded them not. Day by day their happiness increased till it seemed as if the very saints must wax jealous. Yet sometimes he would find her gazing at him with fear in her wide blue eyes; sometimes she fathomed the depths of despair in his deep brown ones . . . Maria! be merciful . . .
Then stalked August and the call of the war-lords. Ivan went.
Olga went to Riga to see him off. In the midst of primitive hysterics she and Ivan shed not a tear. They stared at each other dumbly, as for the last time he held her face between his huge hands . . . Then she turned and trudged heavy-footed back to Alor, and milked her cow. Beda and the lambs supped well . . .
"DEING part-German as were half the Lithuanians, anyway,
Jan Helldt did not go. He remained at home and spent most of his time trying to annoy Olga.
It took him six months to learn that she could not be annoyed, that she would not tolerate a substitute for her husband; as well, that her muscles were taut and firm.
One day in April a man rode in from Tukkum panting that the Hun hordes had descended; to flee without losing a moment.
Katyryna laughed; at least they would be men. Jan’s eyes narrowed wolfishly over Olga’s
straight form, slender in comparison with the squat roundness of his mother and sister. Anna
rocked herself on her haunches and whimpered.
“One family—” was his favorite story.
Olga did not wait to hear more.
—Oh, where was God?—Maria! her virtue, her honor—She was Ivan’s woman; to the rest of the world, a nun. —That men could be such brutes!
‘One family—,’ rang in her ears. Pushing Beda through the gap in the fence where huddled the Helldt flock she bade her a brief farewell and fled to Riga and her sister.
Marya, who went by the name of Delvig, lived in the older part of the city. Persons coming to her abode preferred the old-fashioned flickering gas-lamps to the merciless new electricity, experiencing no difficulty in locating her knocker. Jan had none. Old Anna would have been mortified to see how aptly his hand raised.
“Is Olga here, Marya?” when he stood in the dim narrow vestibule beneath the dulled ruby light which sifted to the street, through the ungenerous oblongs of cobbled glass at each side of the heavy door.
“Olga? No,” she replied coldly, looking fixedly into
his shifty eyes. Marya had been called ‘The Magnificent, “Why?”
“Well,” he stammered, “the Germans are coming and
“You thought you would get here first. Is it not so?”
“Now, Marya! Perhaps I could save her. They are striding ruthlessly. And Olga—I have always loved Olga.’
“Speak not of Olga and love while your filthy tongue is moist with the same saliva. Chut! Speak not of love at all. You—Jan! You hate her because she scorned you; as she would.—If the peril is so great why did you not remain at home and save your sister? Where are these Germans?”
Jan was sullen and defiant with an ugliness about his loose mouth which boded ill. Katy could take care of herself, the shrew. As if he could tell where the Germans were? She could wait and see for herself. She would not have long to wait either; nor would she be delayed in finding out what they were like. They were swift and very sure. Laughing coarsely he related one or two incidents of Tukkum.
Marya shuddered inwardly. Olga, who was like the dead mother . . .
Jan’s hot heavy breath was in her ear.
“I’ll take her where they’ll never find her. My word for it, Marya,” eagerly.
“Come. You shall talk with the child,” in a voice of honey, taking the elbow of the fellow, who swaggered. “But first, the honors of the house.—Sonya!” she called to one of her girls, “fetch a bottle of absinthe!”addingin a whisper, “A little of the powder.”
Jan drank it feverishly, stroking the girl’s soft hand. “You’re the right sort, little one. Sonya, are you? I’ll not forget. Sonya. Son-ya. Son-on-ya.—Yaw!
Marya, where is Olga? They were before the horizon when I left Alor. Probably,” with another huge yawn as he tried to hold his flushed face on a level with hers “it
will be midnight before they—yaw!—reach here._
Midnight! Maria! The woman gathered up all the money she had in the house and tied it in a handkerchief; made up a bundle of food in a large, murky shawl, and enveloped Olga in a man’s clumsy great-coat. In fifteen minutes they were down at the water-front, the elder bargaining with a boatman-acquaintance to take her sister across to the Island of Oesel in his fishing-smack.
“Of course I shall not go, child,” she demurred, embracing her, a lifetime of tenderness in that moment’s
brief enfolding. “What harm can come to me?”
It was a dangerous voyage with the winter ice still if the gulf, and longer because with their small craft they were compelled to keep comparatively near the shore.
Olga stretched herself at Arensburg and slept soundly in the boarding-house for having another woman beneath the roof. At the end of a week a cattle-boat called at the island, a filthy barge populous with rough men. She secreted her money about her clothes and, in obedience to Marya’s suggestion, so distorted her person with her heavy shawl and cumbersome coat that none felt aught but pity for her ... In Stockholm she felt that she could breathe freely once more. But not for long. If it was not out-and-out German, its sympathies were with the aggressor. Olga’s man, her other self, had been taken from her by these Huns. She burned with a volcanic hatred for them By degrees she worked her way westward to Christiania, and there the opportunity presented itself to go as stewardess on an English packet. Upon reaching Hull she decided to remain there and learn the language.
It was the spring of 1916 before she sighted the Statue of Liberty in Ivan’s ‘Promised Land,’ her goal. It affected her strangely, bound up as it was with her romance. She felt that she should bow her knees before it in gratitude for the gift of the man who left her thoughts neither by night nor day, although it was a full year since she had received the last of his brief, painstaking communications.
With the English she had picked up, she secured a position as second-cook in a hotel on Fulton Street, and in a few months became head of the kitchen. Her monthly wage seemed like a small fortune, and she was able to repay Marya’s loan with interest.
The manager of the hotel had a linguistic friend of his write the letter for her. She was the best cook he had ever had; consequently he was kind to her. No one interfered with her comings and goings; she was too thick of waist, wrist and ankle for American elegance. As for her clothes, they were merely protective. She no longer cared to appear well, at least not till Ivan—for whom her soul longed—came and sought her again. She was desperately lonely at times when she might have had companionship of the sort she craved; but seared upon her brain were the words of Anna Helldt, who had been born with a caul.
It was Ivan, Ivan, Ivan all day and night. When she broiled a steak or baked a pie it was practice against his coming. When she went to the night school and patiently, laboriously learned to read and write the English ‘a-b-c’ it was for Ivan who would come when the dreadful war, of which she heard so much and learned so little, was over; come to the Promised Land and make a home for her and—Maria!—the little ones. There would be Ivan and Olga and Marya and—well, Peter and Alexis and Nestor—plenty of boys! In the darkness she ticked them off generously. And of all, Ivan, the eldest, would be most like him who had come to her through the crimson
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gates. Days when her heart raced faster she would take the piecrust that was over and roll out a little duck for Ivan, or a lamb—that would be when the sap was running and all the rivers in flood—for Marya. She was happy in the little world she misted nebulously about herself at such times, except that Ivan’s arm was not there of nights.
CPRING of 1917 . Olga, three d) afternoon hours to do with as she pleased, strode in her magnificent way to Central Park for a peep at the green leaves bursting from their buds. As she held the willow branch against her cheek, less rosy than Ivan had known it as though the city’s smoke had grayed its warm hues, visions of Beda and the new lambs came thronging, till it seemed as if her heart would burst with a wild longing she was powerless to tame. The policeman who, as she entered the park, had scoffed inwardly at the ‘duds’ these foreigners wore, found occasion to pass
and repass before the golden wonder of her, as head bared she caressed the plump pussy-willows, listening to the baby voices of them. At length she observed his scrutiny and, dropping her eyes, colored. He was large, like Ivan; and it was spring. But he was not Ivan . . .
She hurried guiltily home, the miles longer this way, thriftily removed her street-clothes, and hung them beneath a sheet tacked to the wall, attired herself in a blue allover-apron, and descended upon the kitchen. She had barely got out her mixing-bowl when themanagerentered with a thin foreign envelope addressed in a foreign hand.
“Olga Fedorovitch,” he read. “Is this yours?”
She scrutinized it carefully—a letter was an event to a Lett of her class—then wiping the flour from her hands, slit it.
“It is in t’e Lit’uanian,” she said, with slow precision. “I cannot read t’e Lit’uanian.”
“I’ll send it around to my friend who
wrote your other letter,” he volunteered, “and have it translated if you like. It will be back in no time.”
He was very kind to her, she thought as she rolled out crusts for pies that were to be served hot. All Americans were kind; and wealthy. The boss and his missus should have strawberry shortcake for dinner; heaped with cream.
“What news can the letter contain?” she wondered, her heart pulsating till her ears ached. Marya had her address, and Ivan had Marya’s. Had Marya had her priest write to say that Ivan was on bis way to her? It was not her husband’s arduous handwriting, that she knew. Coming! Oh, Mother of God! She would like to see his dear broad face when his brown eyes rested upon The Goddess. Life was beautiful as music, for were not the crimson gates opening again?
When her employer returned half an hour later Olga, radiantly arresting from the spring-song which coursed like strong wine through her being, was pricking a piecrust lamb which reposed on a tin plate alongside a jolly fat piecrust duck.
He handed her the translation.
“Please to read it,” she entreated throatily, thrusting it back into his hand.
His pulses stirred by the unwonted vibrancy of her, he read.
‘ • The money had come; he, the
priest, had it. Marya was dead. The Germans had killed her; they would not leave her to corrupt their new possessions. Official word from the department gave the name of Ivan Fedorovitch as killed in action at Sanok, May 8, 1915 . . . The mercy of all the saints attend their souls . . . ’
Olga looked at the small sheet of paper stupidly. Just looked; and looked. Sucha small piece of paper. So few words. That —to draw a black curtain before her eyes, to wring drop by drop the blood from her heart . . .
“Now in this big empty without-God world I am alone by myself,” she said dully in her own tongue; and taking the two cookies squeezed them to a formless mass which dropped with a heavy thud into the garbage pail. Clods falling on the rough-box in a grave; ashes of a dead fire . . . “There is strawberry shortcake for you and Missus.”
He had words of sympathy upon his tongue; an hour off in which she could go to her priest; but he turned indignantly towards the dining-room.
“Bah! these cattle,” he muttered. “Absolutely callous; no souls.”
... A black world to herself . . . And no God in Heaven .
At times she thought she must go back to see if the Germans had spared Beda; if she still ran with the Helldt flock; but the priest in the little church deterred her. Such doings! The world awry!
She slept heavily of nights and woke unrefreshed. She never went to the park again. Maria! why was spring when the heart was dead?
OPRING, 1918; the world still awry.
^ Michel Terin had come from Manitoba to New York to say good-bye to his brother Paul who had been drafted in Pittsburgh. After the transport had become a mere dot on the horizon he turned and walked aimlessly, strangely perturbed, about the busy East Side streets until his stomach clamored the hour. It was late; seven o’clock. Already the crowds were less rushed. He hastened along Broadway as far as Fulton Street, and swung along it until the savory odor of cooking set his nostrils aprick, acquainting him with the fact that part of his unrest was physical.
The dining-room was still a-bustle, but he secured a corner seat from which he could observe the diners; an itinerant patronage, transients like himself.
Michel’s pockets were full of money. He ordered the best the menu afforded and enjoyed it at his leisure, punctiliously selecting the various forks and spoons and
] crooking his little finger at a careful angle from his coffee-cup, feeling that his selfeducation had made him superior to most of these lax diners, mainly soft-collared. He disdained slackness in anything. The day was coming when he should stand among the best.
“That is some pie,” he remarked, pleased with his idiom, to the waitress, ordering a second piece. She was a good I waitress and his tip was adequate.
“Some cook,” he said to the manager, as he paused near the door to light a cigarette.
“Glad you are pleased. Come again, and tell your friends.”
“I sure will,” fervently, as he restored the packet of cigarettes to his pocket. Then, wishing to appear cosmopolitan, “Chinese or French—your cook?”
“Neither,” smiling patronizingly. “A white Russian.”
“Lithuanian!” ejaculated Michel. “I, too. Say, I—Fd like to make speech with her.”
“You wouldn’t, once you saw her,” the manager laughed, always fearful of losing his treasure. “She’s not pretty, not young, and not single.”
Michel realized that as far as the man before him was concerned this was final. But not for him, the indomitable. He strolled back to the corner and leaned against a post. The loss of Paul, whom till the previous evening he had not seen for many years, struck him keenly. He did not understand the sensation at all as he was not given to sentiment. That was why he did not recognize it as homesickness. All that mattered was that a few blocks away was a woman who spoke his own tongue. What cared he if she were old and married, or ugly as a witch? Women as women did not interest him; not yet. That time would come when it was ripe. It was just that there was someone, perhaps lonely also, in this great city, who could carry him back to the days when he and his brother played together in the old country.
Cooks worked in kitchens; kitchens were at rears; areaways also.
Olga, finished for the day, was leaning against the door-post looking along the narrow aisle at the last of the dull sunset which reflected above the buildings, j Drab, like everything . . . Yet it was spring. All day she had been thinking of Beda, wondering if there were lambs. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered. . . . Then a pleasant voice. Lithuanian.
I It was like a breath from the Baltic, clearcut from the north. She was flooded with a wild resurgence of pain and longing for she knew not what. Life, love, home . .
He was not a large man, she decided gazing at him steadily, but he had a big personality. He could do things, get what he wanted; a man whose life marched.
He told her that he was Michel Terin from northern Manitoba, which was part of America, come to see his brother off for the front. Was she pro-German? Good! What was her name? Olga Fedorovitch. He liked Olga; Fedorovitch was very long, too long. Was she married? Oh! that was sad, very sad. How long? A year since she knew. Chut! And she had not married again? No children? Sad, too; yet perhaps as well. Did she like the hotel? The pay would be good. Computed in rubles, now, it would make them stare in the old country. Did she like America? New York? Not the city life. No wonder; he did not care for cities either. The sweep of the prairies—south wind in the face—the wheat growing up like nuggets of gold from the rich black loam. He should be spring-ploughing now. Did she like cattle? He had twenty, all Holsteins. And a pet Jersey; for cream ; such cream! Sheep, too; six.
He watched her eyes widen; blue, turquoise.
Beautiful sheep; five ewes. Probably the lambs would be there by now. His mother would tend them. She liked lambs. In fact she liked any baby-things. All her children had died, except two,
Paul and himself. Too much work; not enough food. Things were different now, although too late for her that way. She liked the new country, but was slow to assimilate the new ways. He had built her a fine house, six rooms, water from a windmill, lights from a plant. The hired men had a shack of their own. Olga, now, would appreciate the things he had done. How old was she? Twenty! Indeed she looked older—but the city! Years and years before her. How old would she think he was? More. Yes, thirty-five but young and strong. No home-brew poison in his veins. No, he had never married; too busy for foolishness. He was ambitious; nobody should call him a ‘dirty foreigner’ ... He clinked his silver and rustled his roll.
Olga was sudden. She went with him the next day. Not the way she had gone with Ivan, whose warmth was a thing of the soul whereas Michel’s was a new heat in his blood; nevertheless, gladly. Wind without smoke—grain waving—lambs to be fed . . . The priest said she was wise—the world all awry!—and blessed her.
OLGA and the little mother who would not be American worked all summer in the garden. Michel thought things grew wherever his wife’s feet trod. He was proud of her because she could work so well and so long, and still rest his eyes; but anxious that she should carry herself no differently from American-born women. One day she would have a position to fill. Shoes with buttons she must wear; not his mother’s kind. Lena preferred the ugly but comfortable valenki in winter and none at all in summer, wrapping the fine ones her son had brought her in tissue paper and treasuring them in the little shack.
It was a matter of profound regret to the new wife that Lena and the old Michel should refuse to stay in the big house.
“Two sleeping apartments idle,” Olga entreated.
“Fill them,” replied Lena, folding her leathery wizened hands, which looked like crumpled autumn leaves. “No; the young mating birds must have a tree to themselves. Last year’s nest suffices for birds who no longer sing.”
‘Not that Olga sang much orally; even her soul-music was cadenced with a minor strain because it was Michel’s life not Ivan’s, which was being lived. Dear Ivan who was buried in her heart, who pressed her to him in dreams, who burned her hungry lips with his kisses
Michel was good to her. Such a house as was theirs! Oilcloth on every floor— none of those weary tiled patterns either —and in the parlor a green and red mat with a marvellous variegated dog; a mat one walked carefully around. Lights, too; nothing but turn a button and see a cluster of enormous red-hued flowers bloom. Also a gramaphone—on a carved oak table—which played everything from the incomprehensible ‘Cohen on the Telephone’ to Tschaikovsky’s ‘Serenata’
. . . Upstairs three beds with winterpatched coverlets of babushka1 s designing; and in the room she and Michel occupied a basin and pitcher with roses as large as cabbages.
Ten days at the Greek Christmas she irked in bed and studied those roses in detail, in between hours of admiring the little son curved in the circle of her arm. Lena backed her in her demand to be up, but the doctor had ordered otherwise, so Michel endorsed him ‘because it was the proper way’.
Nikolaus, named for ‘The Rover’, was a sturdy Terin-boy. Michel, proudly watching her bend over him, said to himself, “Another one or two like that and Ivan Fedorovitch will be no more than a cloud in last summer’s sky.”
To Olga, however, life was unreal. Sometimes she thought she was dead with a body which was compelled to be animate in a world of living creatures. Only when
little Nik strained at her breast it was different. Nothing mattered then but the touch of his full red lips and the smile of warm satisfaction in his blue eyes as they gazed into hers.
Michel was teaching her to read and write both English and Lithuanian.
“Some day we shall go to the old country and we must go as educated folks, as to the Letts we shall appear very wealthy. As well, the little Nik must not be ashamed of his parents; all Canadians worthy of the name read and write. Yet must we not forsake the mother-tongue.”
That was work, but housekeeping was play. Washing and churning with a gasoline engine, ironing with an electric iron, cooking on a coal oil stove.
“I’ll be soft, not chopping wood,” she implored.
“Keep soft for young Nik; Canadian women do not chop wood.”
“Neither did Marya,” she thought, | crossing herself. Ivan had been proud of his wife, because her furrow wasasstraight as his. Her hands often itched for the I plough-handles. She dreaded idle mo! ments; but she loathed crochet-work.
However, she managed to keep fairly busy. There was Nikolaus who should be bathed every morning, the doctor said — “washing him away,” Lena grumbled—fed at set intervals, and put to bed regularly in a room by himself. A young Canadian of the best he should be, his father contended. Lena did not hold with such doings and said so, but her daughter-in-law did not take offence; in Alor all would side with babushka. And in spite of these iconoclastic tendencies, Lena admired her son’s wife extravagantly.
OPRING came again in 1919. First '"-'there were the calves and the colts, then the little lambkins. Olga Terin looked at her small son with prayers in her eyes. The consummation of a world; not awry.
It was a wonderful world, fresh-born each year. Could it be that the sap might run in a dead tree?
By the next spring little Nik holding his mother’s left hand was able to walk to see that season’s lambs. Michel thought Olga’s right arm was empty; but Olga’s thoughts were her own.
Little Nikolaus seemed world enough for her. It was heaven to have him run straight-limbed to her waiting arms; heaven to steal the sweet perfume where his curling hair met his neck.
“Washing him away,” scoffed Lena. “He doesn’t even smell healthy. And why should he, filling him with pap when he should be sharpening his teeth on beef and good salt pork?” ;
Olga smiled as she skimmed the fat ! off the broth she had prepared the day ■ before. She did not mean half she said, this small, dark grandmother munching sunflower seeds.
Michel was more than content with life. It was a ritual when Olga filled the large tub on Sunday mornings. Not that he needed a bath, but his weekly ablutions wrought in him a feeling of kind superiority . . . They must have a tub upstairs; he had been thinking of it for some time; would see the plumber. Olga had enough to do caring for his son ... Of course in the summer it was | easier to plunge into the creek which ran through their farm. His mother was never done upbraiding him for his follies: declared he was assuming a different color, would soon be albino. Letting the doctor dictate how they should sleep! They would see what they would see when some morning forty degrees below zero they awoke to find themselves frozen to death. Open windows indeed! Night air was everywhere known to be poisonous. As for Olga cleaning out the corners with a skewer, she would die young . . Michel smiled fondly at both women; yet sniffed the stuffy shack, heavy with the concentrated odors of everything. How had he existed before Olga came? There was a fragrance in her hair, fresher than
the south wind blowing across the sweet clover patch. His golden woman! Maker of heaven. He never learned to take her for granted. Each day that summer he found fresh marvel which grew even as the shot-blade headed out, absorbing the gold of the sun’s hot days, the strength of the north’s cold nights.
And the summer gave way to harvest time . .
Olga put away the last of the supper dishes and taking little Nik’s hand in hers walked down to the corner of the two roads to the mail-box marked, *M. Terin.’ There was the usual assortment of papers, catalogues and business letters for Michel: and one addressed on a thin envelope in heavy foreign writing, that she had seen as in a dream before, addressed, to Olga Fedorovitch, at Alor.
'Olga Fedorovitch.’ How remote it sounded. Ivan’s handwriting peeping through the many corrections outstanding of which was the careful script of the New York priest’s re-addressing. Ivan’s heavy drawn letters like a Mongol’s head in a bevy of blondes . . .
Her knees trembled. She barely saw the cloud of gold-dust thrown up against the sky by the separator. All she saw was the red Manitoba sunset across a sea of prairie, the crimson gates through which Ivan, in spite of Michel’s goodness, the one man in the world, had come to her. Yes, she loved Michel too in a way. Could she help that? . . . But it was Ivan, Ivan, Ivan submerging her with waves of passionate longing . . . Her hand clasped the warm hand of Nik, the one child in the world, and he was not Ivan’s child.
“Nikky,” called Lena, standing in the doorway of her shack, her yellow platok deadening the already leathery face.
Nik ran for the lipyoshki his grandmother held out to him, cramming it into his greedy mouth. The little oily cake was almost eaten before Olga noticed it. She whisked him upstairs to bed, vey much against his will. He wished to play, was sure of what he wanted, did not relish being disposed of with such celerity. This was a strange mother; not a laugh; not even a smile. He eyed her reproachfully; and whimpered out of character.
In her own room, with the red roses on the pitcher accusing her and the air swimming thickly, she opened the letter.
T have not heard from you for a long time but it is difficult to get mail at present. I have written you before of the German prison camp, May, 1915, a long time like dead. When the war finished I was too ill to be moved. Now I am recovered, but too weak to come to our own Lithuania and Alor. Come to me, darling wife, for my heart cries night and day for you. From the most faithful and adoring Ivan Fedorovitch to his wife Olga.’
The Lithuanian words, the Lithuanian characters. She could see his black head bent over the table, his firm hands gripping the unaccustomed pen . . . His heart cried night and day for her. Ah! those brown eyesfilled with despair . . .
It seemed hours later that she heard Michel come in, put wood in the range— the nights were becoming chilly—and call as he performed his ablutions at the sink, “Olga, have you tea for your hungry man?”
Ashen-faced, and with lips working inarticulately she descended the stairs, her feet dragging, and silently handed him the letter. Poor Michel! that she should have to hurt him . . .
It was years since his quick temper had broken its bounds, which may have accounted for its acceleration then.
“It’s a dam’-forgery,” he shouted, slamming it into the blazing firebox as if it were Ivan Fedorovitch and all his memories he was consigning to perdition. “He’d have written before if he’d been alive.”
Olga was burning her hand in an endeavor to rescue the letter from the flames. But it was ashes which crumbled crisply between her fingers. She stared in stupefaction at the blister rising on her hand. Michel reached for it to kiss it—to salve his own wound—but she put it deliberately behind her. How dared he? How dared he? To destroy that which had been in Ivan’s strong hand, which his lips had touched,
“In the old country we are not given to writing overmuch,” patiently, as she might have spoken to young Nik. “As well, 1 could not read.”
"It was a forgery,” he repeated, livid, as though repetition would establish the fact and shake her from her apathy.
“No, it was Ivan’s writing; I have seen it before.”
"You could not read,” triumphantly, “when you lived in Alor.”
“A man might be blind, but he could tell his wife by the smell of her hair.”
Michel felt faint. His own words. As though he was not aware of that.
“It was my husband’s writing,” she repeated dully.
“He’s not your husband,” thundered the man. “I’m your husband.”
“No,” swallowing hard, “he is my husband.”
“Then what am I?”
She winced, her face haggard as with the pains of travail . . . Anna Helldt dogging her every footstep; getting her at last. Oh, Maria!
At the struggle in her face he shrank within himself afraid. There wasaquality in her he had never fathomed, could never master. She had been his, yet she had not been his. Always and forever Ivan’s. His bosom felt empty as though his heart had been ripped out of it.
Olga lay in the garlic-drugged shack that night listening while Michel paced up and down outside, imploring, upbraiding, beseeching, defaming all at once; cursing primitively in weak moments, weeping helplessly in strong ones. It tore her quivering heart-strings. Michel, the invincible. Their world was awry . . . Towards morning she slept and dreamed that Beda had delivered herself of a lambkin with a caul . . .
BEFORE the day that Olga Fedorovitch found herself once more at Alor in the small thatched cottage from which the weather had worn the grass and moss wedged in between the logs, she spent her unquiet nights in many places; trains and ships, hotels and boarding-houses, hovels and thatched cottages, above all the friendly chaynayas of Russia where the price of a pot of soup carried with it the privilege of curling up on a bench. Looking till her eyes were blistered; asking till her tongue was parched; listening till her ears resounded.
But no Ivan. Michel had been right. Russia was a large place for a woman to attempt to fine-comb with nothing upon which to go except that she thought there was ‘ter’ in the middle of the name. She found that Russia had a preponderance of villages whose names contained that syllable. If only Michel had not burned the letter! If only she had paid more attention to the address upon it, in spite of the devastating news the body of it bore! If the old parents at Revel had not passed away! If the government channels had not been disorganized by revolution after revolution! If her New York savings had been elastic! If! If! Always if!
No Ivan. Kneeling before the ikons in the ‘prayer corner’ of her one room she could see his brown eyes overflowing with despair, the gay laughter vanquished. His empty arms weary from waiting. Halfmanhood he had said life was without her; half-womanhood hers without him. Those dear brown eyes . . .
And Michel, poor fellow, broken up. True, he had the child, his child and hers. She had not the cruelty to deprive him of little Nikolaus. Good Michel, left amid
the ruins of a life which had marched
“Little Nik! Ah, Maria! Did the old Lena remember her promise to skim the j unwholesome grease from his broth? And scald the saucepan in which his food was prepared? What of his bath?—The sweetness at the nape of his neck threatened to suffocate her with longing. Maria, Maria, comfort, Mother of God!
She rose, cleared away the coarse dishes swept the already spotless floor, and went towards the sea that ever called.
There was no fear of Jan now; he had been stabbed by a girl. Katyryna was in Riga calling herself by a borrowed name, and old Anna was very humble before her neighbor who had been to the far edge of the earth without taking to herself the ignoble traits of the philandering rover. Glad to have the woman—girl no longer —at hand, the very day of Olga’s return she had hobbled in her wooden-soleü shoes to pay for the lambs with which Beda had presented her during the long absence of her owner. She had hobbled back, mumbling, her black specks of eyes shining avariciously over the money still clutched in her hand. Olga was kind, but soft. She had yet to learn that in these days of revolution and predatory taxation a lone woman had a hard time to make ends meet. Poor Olga, so tired, so subdued about the eyes; like a dead woman resurrected only to die; like a saint whose soul burned in her eyes and through her transparent skin . . .
How many lives Olga had lived! How many deaths died! She moved slowly beachward, her old blue cotton dress tight across her bosom. The June breeze fanning the gulf breathed lovingly upon her sad face. Beda and her one lamb trailed faithfully behind. To her right was the distant smoke of Riga, to her left the thatched roofs of Alor; there was the straggling stone pier and here the flat rock, where Ivan had found her. Groping, she sat down upon it, her bosom heaving in tumultuous despair as memory flooded back from her rapture, her gaze far across to the sun lowering to the rim of the sea.
Beda lumbered around and nuzzled her clasped knees, and the lambkin nuzzled its mother. Olga felt a terrific tugging beneath the taut blue cotton. Little Nik Little Nik! Blood of her heart!
Unaccustomed tears blurred her eyes. The western gold turned to flame, a blazing beacon to guide faltering feet and weary souls to the Promised Land beyond. Ah, that was it! Anna’s caul had availed her naught. She, Olga Fedorovitch, had the true prophetic vision. Behind her, about her, within her, a world awry; but ¡ before stretched the shimmering sheet of i the Baltic straight to the dazzling sunset j where once heaven had opened and sent forth her heart’s desire. Through a mist she watched till night’s curtain shadowed from sight the crimson gates of Paradise, j
YYTHEN Father Geryluk’s story ended Í * ^ I came to with a start, surprised to | see, instead of the crimson gates across ! the Baltic, the familiar objects of the teacherage; but, except for the puffing at ' my pipe as I relit it, there was silence. I was thinking of the words of my predecessor.
“You’re crazy, a college graduate, to come to a place like this to teach; nothing but dirty foreigners . . . Material for a novel? Well, you’ll get plenty, and it’ll sure be snappy, but monotonous; history repeating. They’re all cut off one pattern; and it’s on the bias ... As for your missionary zeal,” patronizingly, “it’s a lot easier to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear than it is to make decent Canadians out of Galicians. They’re nothing, less than nothing, and that’s what you’ll get out of them—nothing.”
“Ex nihilo nihil fit, eh?”
I looked across at the little priest who was trying so patiently to enlist my understanding for his people. Olga! . . . Michel! ... I took up my pen as if it j had been a sword. Ex nihilo nihil fit?