A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 12

The question whether I had reason to feel happy or the reverse still occupied me after going to bed, and kept me awake far into the night. I put it to myself in a variety of ways, concentrating my faculties on it; but the result still remained doubtful. Mine was a curious position for a man to be in; for here was I, very much in love with Yoletta, who said that her age was thirty-one, and yet who knew of only one kind of love — that sisterly affection which she gave me so unstintingly. Of course I was surrounded with mysteries, being in the house but not of it, to the manner born; and I had already arrived at the conclusion that these mysteries could only be known to me through reading, once that accomplishment was mine. For it seemed rather a dangerous thing to ask questions, since the most innocent interrogatory might be taken as an offense, only to be expiated by solitary confinement and a bread-and-water diet; or, if not punishable in that way, it would probably be regarded as a result of the supposed collision of my head with a stone. To be reticent, observant, and studious was a safe plan; this had served to make me diligent and attentive with my lessons, and my gentle teacher had been much pleased with the progress I had made, even in a few days. Her words on the hill had now, however, filled me with anxiety, and I wanted to go a little below the surface of this strange system of life. Why was this large family — twenty-two members present, besides some absent pilgrims, as they are called — composed only of adults? Again, more curious still, why was the father of the house adorned with a majestic beard, while the other men, of various ages, had smooth faces, or, at any rate, nothing more than a slight down on the upper lip and cheeks? It was plain that they never shaved. And were these people all really brothers and sisters? So far, I had been unable, even with the most jealous watching, to detect anything like love-making or flirting; they all treated each other, as Yoletta treated me, with kindness and affection, and nothing more. And if the head of the house was in fact the father of them all — since in two centuries a man might have an indefinite number of children — who was the mother or mothers? I was never good at guessing, but the result of my cogitations was one happy idea — to ask Yoletta whether she had a living mother or not? She was my teacher, my friend and guardian in the house, and if it should turn out that the question was an unfortunate one, an offense, she would be readier to forgive than another.

Accordingly, next day, as soon as we were alone together I put the question to her, although not without a nervous qualm.

She looked at me with the greatest surprise. “Do you mean to say,” she answered, “that you do not know I have a mother — that there is a mother of the house?”

“How should I know, Yoletta?” I returned. “I have not heard you address any one as mother; besides, how is one to know anything in a strange place unless he is told?”

“How strange, then, that you never asked till now! There is a mother of the house — the mother of us all, of you since you were made one of us; and it happens, too, that I am her daughter — her only child. You have not seen her because you have never asked to be taken to her; and she is not among us because of her illness. For very long she has been afflicted with a malady from which she cannot recover, and for a whole year she has not left the Mother’s Room.”

She spoke with eyes cast down, in a low and very sad voice. It was only too plain now that in my ignorance I had been guilty of a grave breach of the etiquette or laws of the house; and anxious to repair my fault, also to know more of the one female in this mysterious community who had loved, or at all events had known marriage, I asked if I might see her.

“Yes,” she answered, after some hesitation, still standing with eyes cast down. Then suddenly, bursting into tears, she exclaimed: “Oh, Smith, how could you be in the world and not know that there is a mother in every house! How could you travel and not know that when you enter a house, after greeting the father, you first of all ask to be taken to the mother to worship her and feel her hand on your head? Did you not see that we were astonished and grieved at your silence when you came, and we waited in vain for you to speak?”

I was dumb with shame at her words. How well I remembered that first evening in the house, when I could not but see that something was expected of me, yet never ventured to ask for enlightment!

Presently, recovering from her tears, she went from the room, and, left alone, I was more than ever filled with wonder at what she had told me. I had not imagined that she had come into the world without a mother; nevertheless, the fact that this passionless girl, who had told me that there was only one kind of love, was the daughter of a woman actually living in the house, of whose existence I had never before heard, except in an indirect way which I failed to understand, seemed like a dream to me. Now I was about to see this hidden woman, and the interview would reveal something to me, for I would discover in her face and conversation whether she was in the same mystic state of mind as the others, which made them seem like the dwellers in some better place than this poor old sinful, sorrowful world. My wishes, however, were not to be gratified, for presently Yoletta returned and said that her mother did not desire to see me then. She looked so distressed when she told me this, putting her white arms about my neck as if to console me for my disappointment, that I refrained from pressing her with questions, and for several days nothing more was spoken between us on the subject.

At length, one day when our lesson was over, with an expression of mingled pleasure and anxiety on her face, she rose and took my hand, saying, “Come.”

I knew she was going to take me to her mother, and rose to obey her gladly, for since the conversation I had had with her the desire to know the lady of the house had given me no peace.

Leaving the music room, we entered another apartment, of the same nave-like form, but vaster, or, at all events, considerably longer. There I started and stood still, amazed at the scene before me. The light, which found entrance through tall, narrow windows, was dim, but sufficient to show the whole room with everything in it, ending at the further extremity at a flight of broad stone steps. The middle part of the floor, running the entire length of the apartment, was about twenty feet wide, but on either side of this passage, which was covered with mosaic, the floor was raised; and on this higher level I saw, as I imagined, a great company of men and women, singly and in groups, standing or seated on great stone chairs in various positions and attitudes. Presently I perceived that these were not living beings, but life-like effigies of stone, the drapery they were represented as wearing being of many different richly-colored stones, having the appearance of real garments. So natural did the hair look, that only when I ascended the steps and touched the head of one of the statues was I convinced that it was also of stone. Even more wonderful in their resemblance to life were the eyes, which seemed to return my half-fearful glances with a calm, questioning scrutiny I found it hard to endure. I hurried on after my guide without speaking, but when I got to the middle of the room I paused involuntarily once more, so profoundly did one of the statues impress me. It was of a woman of a majestic figure and proud, beautiful face, with an abundance of silvery-white hair. She sat bending forward with her eyes fixed on mine as I advanced, one hand pressed to her bosom, while with the other she seemed in the act of throwing back her white unbound tresses from her forehead. There was, I thought, a look of calm, unbending pride on the face, but on coming closer this expression disappeared, giving place to one so wistful and pleading, so charged with subtle pain, that I stood gazing like one fascinated, until Yoletta took my hand and gently drew me away. Still, in spite of the absorbing nature of the matter on which I was bound, that strange face continued to haunt me, and glancing up and down through that long array of calm-browed, beautiful women, I could see no one that was like it.

Arrived at the end of the gallery, we ascended the broad stone steps, and came to a landing twenty or thirty feet above the level of the floor we had traversed. Here Yoletta pushed a glass door aside and ushered me into another apartment — the Mother’s Room. It was spacious, and, unlike the gallery, well-lighted; the air in it was also warm and balmy, and seemed charged with a subtle aroma. But now my whole attention was concentrated on a group of persons before me, and chiefly on its central figure — the woman I had so much desired to see. She was seated, leaning back in a somewhat listless attitude, on a very large, low, couch-like seat, covered with a soft, violet-colored material. My very first glance at her face revealed to me that she differed in appearance and expression from other inmates of the house: one reason was that she was extremely pale, and bore on her worn countenance the impress of long-continued suffering; but that was not all. She wore her hair, which fell unbound on her shoulders, longer than the others, and her eyes looked larger, and of a deeper green. There was something wonderfully fascinating to me in that pale, suffering face, for, in spite of suffering, it was beautiful and loving; but dearer than all these things to my mind were the marks of passion it exhibited, the petulant, almost scornful mouth, and the half-eager, half-weary expression of the eyes, for these seemed rather to belong to that imperfect world from which I had been severed, and which was still dear to my unregenerate heart. In other respects also she differed from the rest of the women, her dress being a long, pale-blue robe, embroidered with saffron-colored flowers and foliage down the middle, and also on the neck and the wide sleeves. On the couch at her side sat the father of the house, holding her hand and talking in low tones to her; two of the young women sat at her feet on cushions, engaged on embroidery work, while another stood behind her; one of the young men was also there, and was just now showing her a sketch, and apparently explaining something in it.

I had expected to find a sick, feeble lady, in a dimly-lighted chamber, with perhaps one attendant at her side; now, coming so unexpectedly before this proud-looking, beautiful woman, with so many about her, I was completely abashed, and, feeling too confused to say anything, stood silent and awkward in her presence.

“This is our stranger, Chastel,” said the old man to her, at the same time bestowing an encouraging look on me.

She turned from the sketch she had been studying, and raising herself slightly from her half-recumbent attitude, fixed her dark eyes on me with some interest.

“I do not see why you were so much impressed,” she remarked after a while. “There is nothing very strange in him after all.”

I felt my face grow hot with shame and anger, for she seemed to look on me and speak of me — not to me — as if I had been some strange, semi-human creature, discovered in the woods, and brought in as a great curiosity.

“No; it was not his countenance, only his curious garments and his words that astonished us,” said the father in reply.

She made no answer to this, but presently, addressing me directly, said: “You were a long time in the house before you expressed a wish to see me.”

I found my speech then — a wretched, hesitating speech, for which I hated myself — and replied, that I had asked to be allowed to see her as soon as I had been informed of her existence.

She turned on the father a look of surprise and inquiry.

“You must remember, Chastel,” said he, “that he comes to us from some strange, distant island, having customs different from ours — a thing I had never heard of before. I can give you no other explanation.”

Her lip curled, and then, turning to me, she continued: “If there are houses in your island without mothers in them, it is not so elsewhere in the world. That you went out to travel so poorly provided with knowledge is a marvel to us; and as I have had the pain of telling you this, I must regret that you ever left your own home.”

I could make no reply to these words, which fell on me like whip-strokes; and looking at the other faces, I could see no sympathy in them for me; as they looked at her — their mother — and listened to her words, the expression they wore was love and devotion to her only, reminding me a little of the angel faces on Guide’s canvas of the “Coronation of the Virgin.”

“Go now,” she presently added in a petulant tone; “I am tired, and wish to rest”; and Yoletta, who had been standing silently by me all the time, took my hand and led me from the room.

With eyes cast down I passed through the gallery, paying no attention to its strange, stony occupants; and leaving my gentle conductress without a word at the door of the music-room, I hurried away from the house. For I could feel love and compassion in the touch of the dear girl’s hand, and it seemed to me that if she had spoken one word, my overcharged heart would have found vent in tears. I only wished to be alone, to brood in secret on my pain and the bitterness of defeat; for it was plain that the woman I had so wished to see, and, since seeing her, so wished to be allowed to love, felt towards me nothing but contempt and aversion, and that from no fault of my own, she, whose friendship I most needed, was become my enemy in the house.

My steps took me to the river. Following its banks for about a mile, I came at last to a grove of stately old trees, and there I seated myself on a large twisted root projecting over the water. To this sequestered spot I had come to indulge my resentful feelings; for here I could speak out my bitterness aloud, if I felt so minded, where there were no witnesses to hear me. I had restrained those unmanly tears, so nearly shed in Yoletta’s presence, and kept back by dark thoughts on the way; now I was sitting quietly by myself, safe from observation, safe even from that sympathy my bruised spirit could not suffer.

Scarcely had I seated myself before a great brown animal, with black eyes, round and fierce, rose to the surface of the stream half a dozen yards from my feet; then quickly catching sight of me, it plunged noisily again under water, breaking the clear image reflected there with a hundred ripples. I waited for the last wavelet to fade away, but when the surface was once more still and smooth as dark glass, I began to be affected by the profounded silence and melancholy of nature, and by a something proceeding from nature — phantom, emanation, essence, I know not what. My soul, not my sense, perceived it, standing with finger on lips, there, close to me; its feet resting on the motionless water, which gave no reflection of its image, the clear amber sunlight passing undimmed through its substance. To my soul its spoken “Hush!” was audible, and again, and yet again, it said “Hush!” until the tumult in me was still, and I could not think my own thoughts. I could thereafter only listen, breathless, straining my senses to catch some natural sound, however faint. Far away in the dim distance, in some blue pasture, a cow was lowing, and the recurring sound passed me like the humming flight of an insect, then fainter still, like an imagined sound, until it ceased. A withered leaf fell from the tree-top; I heard it fluttering downwards, touching other leaves in its fall until the silent grass received it. Then, as I listened for another leaf, suddenly from overhead came the brief gushing melody of some late singer, a robin-like sound, ringing out clear and distinct as a flourish on a clarionet: brilliant, joyous, and unexpected, yet in keeping with that melancholy quiet, affecting the mind like a spray of gold and scarlet embroidery on a pale, neutral ground. The sun went down, and in setting, kindled the boles of the old trees here and there into pillars of red fire, while others in deeper shade looked by contrast like pillars of ebony; and wherever the foliage was thinnest, the level rays shining through imparted to the sere leaves a translucence and splendor that was like the stained glass in the windows of some darkening cathedral. All along the river a white mist began to rise, a slight wind sprang up and the vapor drifted, drowning the reeds and bushes, and wreathing its ghostly arms about the old trees: and watching the mist, and listening to the “hallowed airs and symphonies” whispered by the low wind, I felt that there was no longer any anger in my heart. Nature, and something in and yet more than nature, had imparted her “soft influences” and healed her “wandering and distempered child” until he could no more be a “jarring and discordant thing” in her sweet and sacred presence.

When I looked up a change had come over the scene: the round, full moon had risen, silvering the mist, and filling the wide, dim earth with a new mysterious glory. I rose from my seat and returned to the house, and with that new insight and comprehension which had come to me — that message, as I could not but regard it — I now felt nothing but love and sympathy for the suffering woman who had wounded me with her unmerited displeasure, and my only desire was to show my devotion to her.

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