A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 10

At length the joyful day arrived when I was to cease, in outward appearance at all events, to be an alien; for returning at noon from the fields, on entering my cell I beheld my beautiful new garments — two complete suits, besides underwear: one, the most soberly colored, intended only for working hours; but the second, which was for the house, claimed my first attention. Trembling with eagerness, I flung off the old tweeds, the cracked boots, and other vestiges of a civilization which they had perhaps survived, and soon found that I had been measured with faultless accuracy; for everything, down to the shoes, fitted to perfection. Green was the prevailing or ground tint — a soft sap green; the pattern on it, which was very beautiful, being a somewhat obscure red, inclining to purple. My delight culminated when I drew on the hose, which had, like those worn by the others, a curious design, evidently borrowed from the skin of some kind of snake. The ground color was light green, almost citron yellow, in fact, and the pattern a bright maroon red, with bronze reflections.

I had no sooner arrayed myself than, with a flushed face and palpitating heart, I flew to exhibit myself to my friends, and found them assembled and waiting to see and admire the result of their work. The pleasure I saw reflected in their transparent faces increased my happiness a hundredfold, and I quite astonished them with the torrent of eloquence in which I expressed my overflowing gratitude.

“Now, tell me one secret,” I exclaimed, when the excitement began to abate a little. “Why is green the principal color in my clothes, when no other person in the house wears more than a very little of it?”

I had no sooner spoken than I heartily wished that I had held my peace; for it all at once occurred to me that green was perhaps the color for an alien or mere hireling, in which light they perhaps regarded me.

“Oh, Smith, can you not guess so simple a thing?” said Edra, placing her white hands on my shoulders and smiling straight into my face.

How beautiful she looked, standing there with her eyes so near to mine! “Tell me why, Edra?” I said, still with a lingering apprehension.

“Why, look at the color of my eyes and skin — would this green tint be suitable for me to wear?”

“Oh, is that the reason!” cried I, immensely relieved. “I think, Edra, you would look very beautiful in any color that is on the earth, or in the rainbow above the earth. But am I so different from you all?”

“Oh yes, quite different — have you never looked at yourself? Your skin is whiter and redder, and your hair has a very different color. It will look better when it grows long, I think. And your eyes — do you know that they never change! for when we look at you closely they are still blue-gray, and not green.”

“No; I wish they were,” said I. “Now I shall value my clothes a hundred times more, since you have taken so much pains to make them — well, what shall I say? — harmonize, I suppose, with the peculiar color of my mug. Dash it all, I’m blundering again! I mean — I mean — don’t you know —— ”

Edra laughed and gave it up. Then we all laughed; for now evidently my blundering did not so much matter, since I had shed my outer integument, and come forth like a snake (with a divided tail) in a brand new skin.

Presently I missed Yoletta from the room, and desiring above all things to have some word of congratulation from her lips, I went off to seek her. She was standing under the portico waiting for me. “Come,” she said, and proceeded to lead me into the music-room, where we sat down on one of the couches close to the dais; there she produced some large white tablets, and red chalk pencils or crayons.

“Now, Smith, I am going to begin teaching you,” said she, with the grave air of a young schoolmistress; “and every afternoon, when your work is done, you must come to me here.”

“I hope I am very stupid, and that it will take me a long time to learn,” said I.

“Oh” — she laughed — “do you think it will be so pleasant sitting by me here? I am glad you think that; but if you prefer me for a teacher you must not try to be stupid, because if you do I shall ask some one else to take my place.”

“Would you really do that, Yoletta?”

“Yes. Shall I tell you why? Because I have a quick, impatient temper. Everything wrong I have ever done, for which I have been punished, has been through my hasty temper.”

“And have you ever undergone that sad punishment of being shut up by yourself for many days, Yoletta?”

“Yes, often; for what other punishment is there? But oh, I hope it will never happen again, because I think — I know that I suffer more than any one can imagine. To tread on the grass, to feel the sun and wind on my face, to see the earth and sky and animals — this is like life to me; and when I am shut up alone, every day seems — oh, a year at least!” She did not know how much dearer this confession of one little human weakness made her seem to me. “Come, let us begin,” she said. “I waited for your new clothes to be finished, and we must make up for lost time.”

“But do you know, Yoletta, that you have not said anything about them? Do I look nice; and will you like me any better now?”

“Yes, much better. You were a poor caterpillar before; I liked you a little because I knew what a pretty butterfly you would be in time. I helped to make your wings. Now, listen.”

For two hours she taught me, making her red letters or marks, which I copied on my tablet, and explaining them to me; and at the conclusion of the lesson, I had got a general idea that the writing was to a great extent phonographic, and that I was in for rather a tough job.

“Do you think that you will be able to teach me to sing also?” I asked, when she had put the tablets aside.

The memory of that miserable failure, when I “had led the singing,” was a constant sore in my mind. I had begun to think that I had not done myself justice on that memorable occasion, and the desire to make another trial under more favorable circumstances was very strong in me.

She looked a little startled at my question, but said nothing.

“I know now,” I continued pleadingly, “that you all sing softly. If you will only consent to try me once I promise to stick like cobbler’s wax — I beg your pardon, I mean I will endeavor to adhere to the morendo and perdendosi style — don’t you know? What am I saying! But I promise you, Yoletta, I shan’t frighten you, if you will only let me try and sing to you once.”

She turned from me with a somewhat clouded expression of face, and walked with slow steps to the dais, and placing her hands on the keys, caused two of the small globes to revolve, sending soft waves of sound through the room.

I advanced towards her, but she raised her hand apprehensively. “No, no, no; stand there,” she said, “and sing low.”

It was hard to see her troubled face and obey, but I was not going to bellow at her like a bull, and I had set my heart on this trial. For the last three days, while working in the fields, I had been incessantly practicing my dear old master Campana’s exquisite M’appar sulla tomba, the only melody I happened to know which had any resemblance to their divine music. To my surprise she seemed to play as I sang a suitable accompaniment on the globes, which aided and encouraged me, and, although singing in a subdued tone, I felt that I had never sung so well before. When I finished, I quite expected some word of praise, or to be asked why I had not sung this melody on that unhappy evening when I was asked to lead; but she spoke no word.

“Will you sing something now?” I said.

“Not now — this evening,” she replied absently, slowly walking across the floor with eyes cast down.

“What are you thinking of, Yoletta, that you look so serious?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she returned, a little impatiently.

“You look very solemn about nothing, then. But you have not said one word about my singing — did you not like it?”

“Your singing? Oh no! It was a pleasant-tasting little kernel in a very rough rind — I should like one without the other.”

“You talk in riddles, Yoletta; but I’m afraid the answers to them would not sound very flattering to me. But if you would like to know the song I shall be only too glad to teach it to you. The words are in Italian, but I can translate them.”

“The words?” she said absently.

“The words of the song,” I said.

“I do not know what you mean by the words of a song. Do not speak to me now, Smith.”

“Oh, very well,” said I, thinking it all very strange, and sitting down I divided my attention between my beautiful hose and Yoletta, still slowly pacing the floor with that absent look on her face.

At length the curious mood changed, but I did not venture to talk any more about music, and before very long we repaired to the eating-room, where, for the next two or three hours, we occupied ourselves very agreeably with those processes which, some new theorist informs us, constitute our chief pleasure in life.

That evening I overheard a curious little dialogue. The father of the house, as I had now grown accustomed to call our head, after rising from his seat, stood for a few minutes talking near me, while Yoletta, with her hand on his arm, waited for him to finish. When he had done speaking, and turned to her, she said in a low voice, which I, however, overheard: “Father, I shall lead to-night.”

He put his hand on her head, and, looking down, studied her upturned face. “Ah, my daughter,” he said with a smile, “shall I guess what has inspired you to-day? You have been listening to the passage birds. I also heard them this morning passing in flocks. And you have been following them in thought far away into those sun-bright lands where winter never comes.”

“No, father,” she returned, “I have only been a little way from home in thought — only to that spot where the grass has not yet grown to hide the ashes and loose mold.” He stooped and kissed her forehead, and then left the room; and she, never noticing the hungry look with which I witnessed the tender caress, also went away.

That some person was supposed to lead the singing every evening I knew, but it was impossible for me ever to discover who the leader was; now, however, after overhearing this conversation, I knew that on this particular occasion it would be Yoletta, and in spite of the very poor opinion she had expressed of my musical abilities, I was prepared to admire the performance more than I had ever done before.

It commenced in the usual mysterious and indefinable manner; but after a time, when it began to shape itself into melodies, the idea possessed me that I was listening to strains once familiar, but long unheard and forgotten. At length I discovered that this was Campana’s music, only not as I had ever heard it sung; for the melody of M’appar sulla tomba had been so transmuted and etherealized, as it were, that the composer himself would have listened in wondering ecstasy to the mournful strains, which had passed through the alembic of their more delicately organized minds. Listening, I remembered with an unaccountable feeling of sadness, that poor Campana had recently died in London; and almost at the same moment there came to me a remembrance of my beloved mother, whose early death was my first great grief in boyhood. All the songs I had ever heard her sing came back to me, ringing in my mind with a wonderful joy, but ever ending in a strange, funereal sadness. And not only my mother, but many a dear one besides returned “in beauty from the dust” appeared to be present — white-haired old men who had spoken treasured words to me in bygone years; schoolfellows and other boyish friends and companions; and men, too, in the prime of life, of whose premature death in this or that far-off region of the world-wide English empire I had heard from time to time. They came back to me, until the whole room seemed filled with a pale, shadowy procession, moving past me to the sound of that mysterious melody. Through all the evening it came back, in a hundred bewildering disguises, filling me with a melancholy infinitely precious, which was yet almost more than my heart could bear. Again and yet again that despairing Ah-i-me fell like a long shuddering sob from the revolving globes, and from voices far and near, to be taken up and borne yet further away by far-off, dying sounds, yet again responded to by nearer, clearer voices, in tones which seemed wrung “from the depths of some divine despair”; then to pass away, but not wholly pass, for all the hidden cells were stirred, and the vibrating air, like mysterious, invisible hands, swept the suspended strings, until the exquisite bliss and pain of it made me tremble and shed tears, as I sat there in the dark, wondering, as men will wonder at such moments, what this tempest of the soul which music wakes in us can mean: whether it is merely a growth of this our earth-life, or a something added, a divine hunger of the heart which is part of our immortality.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hudson/william_henry/crystal_age/chapter10.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38