- chapter: III
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OLD Mumè was busily engaged in the kitchen. The milk over the fire had begun to bubble. With a large wooden stick she stirred it. Then she returned to her rice. As she pounded it into flat cakes, her old face, with its hundred wrinkles, was contorted, and she muttered and talked to herself as she worked. She was like some old witch, breathing incantations.
At the threshold of the room stood Koma. His eyes were very wide open and his cheeks were flushed. At his side his little hands were sharply clinched. His whole attitude betokened excitement and impatience. Suddenly he clapped his hands so loudly and sharply that the old woman started in fright; then catching sight of the little intruder, | | 19 she hobbled towards him on her heels, her tongue in angry operation.
"Now, who but an evil one would frighten an old woman? Shame upon you, naughty one!"
"Oh, Mumè, you are so slow the evil one will catch you. Just see, the milk boils over. Still you do not hasten. Yet the illustrious ones are ill, very ill."
"Tsh!" scolded the old woman, as she poured the steaming milk into a shallow bowl, and broke pieces of the rice-bread into it. "What, would you advise old Mumè about such matters? Would you have me burn the honorable babe?"
She cooled the preparation with her hand, fanning it back and forth across the bowl.
Koma watched her a moment with smouldering eyes. Suddenly he started, his little ears alert and attentive.
A cry, thin and piping at first, grew in volume. Was it possible that so small a thing could fill the house with its | | 20 noise? Koma strode to the fire, seized the bowl with both hands, and, before the grumbling old servant could interfere, he was gone with it from the room, and speeding along the hall.
With his finger-tips on the closed shoji of the guest-chamber he tapped gently. It was softly pushed aside, and Aoi appeared in the opening. Stepping into the hall, she closed the sliding screens behind her.
The boy spoke in an eager whisper.
"Here is the milk the honorable one desired."
"Where did you obtain it, son?"
"In the village. And see, we have warmed it, for it was quite cold. It is good goat's milk."
"Such a good son!" whispered Aoi, and stooped to kiss the upraised face ere she returned to the sick-chamber.
Koma crouched down on the floor by the door. He could hear within the soft glide of his mother's feet across the floor. There was a murmuring of indistin- | | 21 guishable words. Then that voice, with its strange accent, which seemed to pierce and reach something in the boy.
The voice was weak now, but its exquisite clearness was not dulled. Then Koma heard the movement of the lifting of the babe; a little cry or two, then little gurgling, satisfied gasps. The babe was being fed with the milk he had procured. It gave Koma a strange satisfaction--a warm delight. He stretched out his little limbs across the floor. He, too, was satisfied. All was now well. Gradually his head drooped backward and Komazawa fell into a slumber.
Within, the stranger was imparting bits of her history to the sympathetic Aoi. She was hardly conscious of her words, which were spoken through her semi-delirium. Her feverish eyes, wide open, shone up into the bending face of Aoi, and held the Japanese woman with their piteous appeal. She seemed soothed under the gentle touch of Aoi's hand on her brow.| | 22
"Pray thee to sleep," gently the Japanese woman persuaded her.
She was quiet a moment, only to start up the next.
"Nay," entreated Aoi, "sleep first--to-morrow speak. Rest, I pray you."
"It was so long, so long!" cried the woman on the bed, clasping her thin hands across those on her head. "And, oh, the pain, the agony of it all! I was so tired--so--"
Her body palpitated and quivered with the sighing sobs that shook her. She sprang up suddenly, pushing away from her the hands of Aoi, which gently attempted to restrain her.
"It was all wrong--quite wrong from the first. But what did they care? They had their wedding. Ah, I tell you, they are bad, all bad! Ah, it was cruel, cruel!"
"Ah," thought Aoi, sadly; "she, too, has been pierced with anguish. Truly, my heart breaks in sympathy with her."| | 23
She bent above the quivering woman, her pitying face close to hers.
"Pray thee, dear one, take rest and comfort," she said, smoothing softly her brow.
"Ah, you are so good, so good," said the sick woman. "You are not like those others--those fearful people." She covered her eyes with her thin hands as if to shut out a vision of some horror. "God will bless you, bless you for your goodness to me," she said.
Exhausted, she lay back among the pillows, her eyes closed. How grateful to her must have felt that great English bed, with its soft coverlets! For how many days had she wandered, without sight or word of her own people! Her thin, fine lips quivered unceasingly, while her blue eyes held a constant mist, seemingly haunted by some troubled spectre that pursued her ceaselessly.
Once she raised her hands feebly, then plucked at the coverlet with long, white fingers.| | 24
"What a death! oh, what a death!" she whispered, faintly.
After a long silence her voice raised itself to the pitch of one delirious.
"If I could see--" Her words came slowly and with difficulty, and she repeated them ramblingly. "If I could only see--a white face--a white--one of my own people. Oh, so long, and, oh me!--mamma, mamma!"
"Ah, dear lady," said Aoi, "if you will but deign to rest I will go forth and endeavor to find some of your people. There are white people in the next town. It is not far--not very far, and perhaps, ah, surely, they will come to you."
"My people," the woman repeated. "No, no." Her voice became hoarse. She started up in her bed. "You do not understand. I must never, never see them again. I could not bear it. They are cruel, wicked. No! Ah, you shall promise me--promise me."
She fell back, exhausted from her transport of passion. Aoi knelt beside | | 25 her and took her hands within her own.
"I will promise you whatever you wish, dear lady. Only speak your desires to me. I will humbly try to carry them out."
The sick woman's voice was so weak that she scarce could raise it above a whisper, but her words were plain.
"Promise me that you will not give them my little one when I am gone. You are good, and will be kind to her. Oh, will you not? I would not be happy, I could not rest in peace if she were sent to--to him." Her words rambled off again. "I left him," she said, "ran away--far away, far away, and the country was all strange to me, and I could not find my way. Every one stared at me; it must have been because I had gone mad, you know, quite mad. All women do. I wanted to put a great distance between us, to get beyond his sight--beyond the sound of his voice, beyond--"| | 26
"All, do not speak more," entreated Aoi, now in tears.
"Why, you are crying!" said the sick woman, looking wistfully into Aoi's face. She began to weep, weakly, impotently, herself.
After a time she became quieter. She started once again, when Aoi had snuffed a few of the lights, seeming to dread the darkness, but when the Japanese woman's hands reassured her, she was again silent. And as she slept she still clung spasmodically to the hands of Aoi.
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