A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 11

It seemed to me now that I had never really lived before so sweet was this new life — so healthy, and free from care and regret. The old life, which I had lived in cities, was less in my thoughts on each succeeding day; it came to me now like the memory of a repulsive dream, which I was only too glad to forget. How I had ever found that listless, worn-out, luxurious, do-nothing existence endurable, seemed a greater mystery every morning, when I went forth to my appointed task in the fields or the workhouse, so natural and so pleasant did it now seem to labor with my own hands, and to eat my bread in the sweat of my face. If there was one kind of work I preferred above all others, it was wood-cutting, and as a great deal of timber was required at this season, I was allowed to follow my own inclination. In the forest, a couple of miles from the house, several tough old giants — chiefly oak, chestnut, elm, and beech — had been marked out for destruction: in some cases because they had been scorched and riven by lightnings, and were an eyesore; in others, because time had robbed them of their glory, withering their long, desolate arms, and bestowing on their crowns that lusterless, scanty foliage which has a mournful meaning, like the thin white hairs on the bowed head of a very old man. At this distance from the house I could freely indulge my propensity for singing, albeit in that coarser tone which had failed to win favor with my new friends.

Among the grand trees, out of earshot of them all, I could shout aloud to my heart’s content, rejoicing in the boisterous old English ballads, which, like John Peele’s view-hallo,

“Might awaken the dead
Or the fox from his lair in the morning.“

Meanwhile, with the frantic energy of a Gladstone out of office, I plied my ax, its echoing strokes making fit accompaniment to my strains, until for many yards about me the ground was littered with white and yellow chips; then, exhausted with my efforts, I would sit down to rest and eat my simple midday fare, to admire myself in my deep-green and chocolate working-dress, and, above everything, to think and dream of Yoletta.

In my walks to and from the forest I cast many a wistful look at a solitary flat-topped hill, almost a mountain in height, which stood two or three miles from the house, north of it, on the other side of the river. From its summit I felt sure that a very extensive view of the surrounding country might be had, and I often wished to pay this hill a visit. One afternoon, while taking my lesson in reading, I mentioned this desire to Yoletta.

“Come, then, let us go there now,” said she, laying the tablets aside.

I joyfully agreed: I had never walked alone with her, nor, in fact, with her at all, since that first day when she had placed her hand in mine; and now we were so much nearer in heart to each other.

She led me to a point, half a mile from the house, where the stream rushed noisily over its stony bed and formed numerous deep channels between the rocks, and one could cross over by jumping from rock to rock. Yoletta led the way, leaping airily from stone to stone, while I, anxious to escape a wetting, followed her with caution; but when I was safe over, and thought our delightful walk was about to begin, she suddenly started off towards the hill at a swift pace, which quickly left me far behind. Finding that I could not overtake her, I shouted to her to wait for me; then she stood still until I was within three or four yards Of her, when off she fled like the wind once more. At length she reached the foot of the hill, and sat down there until I joined her.

“For goodness sake, Yoletta, let us behave like rational beings and walk quietly,” I was beginning, when away she went again, dancing up the mountain-side with a tireless energy that amazed as well as exasperated me. “Wait for me just once more,” I screamed after her; then, half-way up the side, she stopped and sat down on a stone.

“Now my chance has come,” thought I, ready to make up for insufficient speed and wind by superior cunning, which would make us equal. “I will go quietly up and catch her napping, and hold her fast by the arm until the walk is finished. So far it has been nothing but a mad chase.”

Slowly I toiled on, and then, when I got near her and was just about to execute my plan, she started nimbly away, with a merry laugh, and never paused again until the summit was reached. Thoroughly tired and beaten, I sat down to rest; but presently looking up I saw her at the top, standing motionless on a stone, looking like a statue outlined against the clear blue sky. Once more I got up and pressed on until I reached her, and then sank down on the grass, overcome with fatigue.

“When you ask me to walk again, Yoletta,” I panted, “I shall not move unless I have a rope round your waist to pull you back when you try to rush off in that mad fashion. You have knocked all the wind out of me; and yet I was in pretty good trim.”

She laughed, and jumping to the ground, sat down at my side on the grass.

I caught her hand and held it tight. “Now you shall not escape and run away again,” said I.

“You may keep my hand,” she replied; “it has nothing to do up here.”

“May I put it to some useful purpose — may I do what I like with it?”

“Yes, you may,” then she added with a smile: “There is no thorn in it now.”

I kissed it many times on the back, the palm, the wrist then bestowed a separate caress on each finger-tip.

“Why do you kiss my hand?” she asked.

“Do you not know — can you not guess? Because it is the sweetest thing I can kiss, except one other thing. Shall I tell you —— ”

“My face? And why do you not kiss that?”

“Oh, may I?” said I, and drawing her to me I kissed her soft cheek. “May I kiss the other cheek now?” I asked. She turned it to me, and when I had kissed it rapturously, I gazed into her eyes, which looked back, bright and unabashed, into mine. “I think — I think I made a slight mistake, Yoletta,” I said. “What I meant to ask was, will you let me kiss you where I like — on your chin, for instance, or just where I like?”

“Yes; but you are keeping me too long. Kiss me as many times as you like, and then let us admire the prospect.”

I drew her closer and kissed her mouth, not once nor twice, but clinging to it with all the ardor of passion, as if my lips had become glued to hers.

Suddenly she disengaged herself from me. “Why do you kiss my mouth in that violent way?” she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed. “You seem like some hungry animal that wanted to devour me.”

That was, oddly enough, just how I felt. “Do you not not know, sweetest, why I kiss you in that way? Because I love you.”

“I know you do, Smith. I can understand and appreciate your love without having my lips bruised.”

“And do you love me, Yoletta?”

“Yes, certainly — did you not know that?”

“And is it not sweet to kiss when you love? Do you know what love is, darling? Do you love me a thousand times more than any one else in the world?”

“How extravangantly you talk!” she replied. “What strange things you say!”

“Yes, dear, because love is strange — the strangest, sweetest thing in life. It comes once only to the heart, and the one person loved is infinitely more than all others. Do you not understand that?”

“Oh no; what do you mean, Smith?”

“Is there any other person dearer to your heart than I am?”

“I love every one in the house, some more than others. Those that are closely related to me I love most.”

“Oh, please say no more! You love your people with one kind of love, but me with a different love — is it not so?”

“There is only one kind of love,” said she.

“Ah, you say that because you are a child yet, and do not know. You are even younger than I thought, perhaps. How old are you, dear?”

“Thirty-one years old,” she replied, with the utmost gravity.

“Oh, Yoletta, what an awful cram! I mean — oh, I beg your pardon for being so rude! But — but don’t you think you can draw it mild? Thirty-one — what a joke! Why, I’m an old fellow compared with you, and I’m not twenty-two yet. Do tell me what you mean, Yoletta?”

She was not listening to me, I saw: she had risen from the grass and seated herself again on the stone. For only answer to my question she pointed to the west with her hand, saying: “Look there, Smith.”

I stood up and looked. The sun was near the horizon now, and partially concealed by low clouds, which were beginning to form — gray, and tinged with purple and red; but their misty edges burned with an intense yellow flame. Above, the sky was clear as blue glass, barred with pale-yellow rays, shot forth by the sinking sun, and resembling the spokes of an immense celestial wheel reaching to the zenith. The billowy earth, with its forests in deep green and many-colored, autumnal foliage, stretched far before us, here in shadow, and there flushed with rich light; while the mountain range, looming near and stupendous on our right, had changed its color from dark blue to violet.

The doubts and fears agitating my heart made me indifferent to the surpassing beauty of the scene: I turned impatiently from it to gaze again on her graceful figure, girlish still in its slim proportions; but her face, flushed with sunlight, and crowned with its dark, shining hair, seemed to me like the face of one of the immortals. The expression of rapt devotion on it made me silent, for it seemed as if she too had been touched by nature’s magic, like earth and sky, and been transfigured; and waiting for the mood to pass, I stood by her side, resting my hand on her knee. By-and-by she looked down and smiled, and then I returned to the subject of her age.

“Surely, Yoletta,” said I, “you were only poking fun at me — I mean, amusing yourself at my expense. You can’t possibly be more than about fifteen, or sixteen at the very outside.”

She smiled again and shook her head.

“Oh, I know, I can solve the riddle now. Your years are different, of course, like everything else in this latitude. A month is called a year with you, and that would make you, let me see — how much is twelve times thirty-one? Oh, hang it, nearly five hundred, I should think. Why am I such a duffer at mental arithmetic! It is just the contrary — how many twelves in thirty-one? About two and a half in round numbers, and that’s absurd, as you are not a baby. Oh, I have it: your seasons are called years, of course — why didn’t I see it before! No, that would make you only seven and a half. Ah, yes, I see it now: a year means two years, or two of your years — summer and winter — mean a year; and that just makes you sixteen, exactly what I had imagined. Is it not so, Yoletta?”

“I do not know what you are talking about, Smith; and I am not listening.”

“Well, listen for one moment, and tell me how long does a year last?”

“It lasts from the time the leaves fall in the autumn until they fall again; and it lasts from the time the swallows come in spring until they come again.”

“And seriously, honestly, you are thirty-one years old?”

“Did I not tell you so? Yes, I am thirty-one years old.”

“Well, I never heard anything to equal this! Good heavens, what does it mean? I know it is awfully rude to inquire a lady’s age, but what am I to do? Will you kindly tell me Edra’s age?”

“Edra? I forget. Oh yes; she is sixty-three.”

“Sixty-three! I’ll be shot if she’s a day more than twenty-eight! Idiot that I am, why can’t I keep calm! But, Yoletta, how you distress me! It almost frightens me to ask another question, but do tell me how old your father is?”

“He is nearly two hundred years old — a hundred and ninety-eight, I think,” she replied.

“Heavens on earth — I shall go stark, staring mad!” But I could say no more; leaving her side I sat down on a low stone at some distance, with a stunned feeling in my brain, and something like despair in my heart. That she had told me the truth I could no longer doubt for one moment: it was impossible for her crystal nature to be anything but truthful. The number of her years mattered nothing to me; the virgin sweetness of girlhood was on her lips, the freshness and glory of early youth on her forehead; the misery was that she had lived thirty-one years in the world and did not understand the words I had spoken to her — did not know what love, or passion, was! Would it always be so — would my heart consume itself to ashes, and kindle no fire in hers?

Then, as I sat there, filled with these despairing thoughts, she came down from her perch, and, dropping on her knees before me, put her arms about my neck and gazed steadily into my face. “Why are you troubled, Smith-have I said anything to hurt you?” said she. “And do you not know that you have offended me?”

“Have I? Tell me how, dearest Yoletta.”

“By asking questions, and saying wild, meaningless things while I sat there watching the setting sun. It troubled me and spoiled my pleasure; but I will forgive you, Smith, because I love you. Do you not think I love you enough? You are very dear to me — dearer every day.” And drawing down my face she kissed my lips.

“Darling, you make me happy again,” I returned, “for if your love increases every day, the time will perhaps come when you will understand me, and be all I wish to me.”

“What is it that you wish?” she questioned.

“That you should be mine — mine alone, wholly mine — and give yourself to me, body and soul.”

She continued gazing up into my eyes. “In a sense we do, I suppose, give ourselves, body and soul, to those we love,” she said. “And if you are not yet satisfied that I have given myself to you in that way, you must wait patiently, saying and doing nothing willfully to alienate my heart, until the time arrives when my love will be equal to your desire. Come,” she added, and, rising, pulled me up by the hand.

Silently, and somewhat pensively, we started hand in hand on our walk down the hill. Presently she dropped on her knees, and opening the grass with her hands, displayed a small, slender bud, on a round, smooth stem, springing without leaves from the soil. “Do you see!” she said, looking up at me with a bright smile.

“Yes, dear, I see a bud; but I do not know anything more about it.”

“Oh, Smith, do you not know that it is a rainbow lily!” And rising, she took my hand and walked on again.

“What is the rainbow lily?”

“By-and-by, in a few days, it will be in fullest bloom, and the earth will be covered with its glory.”

“It is so late in the season, Yoletta! Spring is the time to see the earth covered with the glory of flowers.”

“There is nothing to equal the rainbow lily, which comes when most flowers are dead, or have their bright colors tarnished. Have you lived in the moon, Smith, that I have to tell you these things?”

“No, dear, but in that island where all things, including flowers, were different.”

“Ah, yes; tell me about the island.”

Now “that island” was an unfortunate subject, and I was not prepared to break the resolution I had made of prudently holding my tongue about its peculiar institutions. “How can I tell you? — how could you imagine it if I were to tell you?” I said, evading the question. “You have seen the heavens black with tempests, and have felt the lightnings blinding your eyes, and have heard the crash of the thunder: could you imagine all that if you had never witnessed it, and I described it to you?”

“No.”

“Then it would be useless to tell you. And now tell me about the rainbow lilies, for I am a great lover of flowers.”

“Are you? Is it strange you should have a taste common to all human beings?” she returned with a pretty smile. “But it is easier to ask questions than to answer them. If you had never seen the sun setting in glory, or the midnight sky shining with myriads of stars, could you imagine these things if I described them to you?”

“No.”

“That word is an echo, Smith. You must wait for the earth to bring forth her rainbow lilies, and the heart its love.”

“With or without flowers, the world is a paradise to me, with you at my side, Yoletta. Ah, if you will be my Eve! How sweet it is to walk hand in hand with you in the twilight; but it was not so nice when you were scuttling from me like a wild rabbit. I’m glad to find that you do walk sometimes.”

“Yes, sometimes — on solemn occasions.”

“Yes? Tell me about these solemn occasions.”

“This is not one of them,” she replied, suddenly withdrawing her hand from mine; then with a ringing laugh, she sped from me, bounding down the hill-side with the speed and grace of a gazelle.

I instantly gave chase; but it was a very vain chase, although I put forth all my powers. Occasionally she would drop on her knees to admire some wild flower, or search for a lily bud; and whenever she came to a large stone, she would spring on to it, and stand for some time motionless, gazing at the rich hues of the afterglow; but always at my approach she would spring lightly away, escaping from me as easily as a wild bird. Tired with running, I at last gave up the hunt, and walked soberly home by myself, wondering whether that conversation on the summit of the hill, and all the curious information I had gathered from it, should make me the most miserable or the most happy being upon earth.

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