A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 13

As I approached the building, soft strains floating far out into the night-air became audible, and I knew that the sweet spirit of music, to which they were all so devoted, was present with them. After listening for awhile in the shadow of the portico I went in, and, anxious to avoid disturbing the singers, stole away into a dusky corner, where I sat down by myself. Yoletta had, however, seen me enter, for presently she came to me.

“Why did you not come in to supper, Smith?” she said. “And why do you look so sad?”

“Do you need to ask, Yoletta? Ah, it would have made me so happy if I could have won your mother’s affection! If she only knew how much I wish for it, and how much I sympathize with her! But she will never like me, and all I wished to say to her must be left unsaid.”

“No, not so,” she said. “Come with me to her now: if you feel like that, she will be kind to you — how should it be otherwise?”

I greatly feared that she advised me to take an imprudent step; but she was my guide, my teacher and friend in the house, and I resolved to do as she wished. There were no lights in the long gallery when we entered it again, only the white moonbeams coming through the tall windows here and there lit up a column or a group of statues, which threw long, black shadows on floor and Wall, giving the chamber a weird appearance. Once more, when I reached the middle of the room, I paused, for there before me, ever bending forward, sat that wonderful woman of stone, the moonlight streaming full on her pale, wistful face and silvery hair.

“Tell me, Yoletta, who is this?” I whispered. “Is it a statue of some one who lived in this house?”

“Yes; you can read about her in the history of the house, and in this inscription on the stone. She was a mother, and her name was Isarte.”

“But why has she that strange, haunting expression on her face? Was she unhappy?”

“Oh, can you not see that she was unhappy! She endured many sorrows, and the crowning calamity of her life was the loss of seven loved sons. They were away in the mountains together, and did not return when expected: for many years she waited for tidings of them. It was conjectured that a great rock had fallen on and crushed them beneath it. Grief for her lost children made her hair white, and gave that expression to her face.”

“And when did this happen?”

“Over two thousand years ago.”

“Oh, then it is a very old family tradition. But the statue — when was that made and placed here?”

“She had it made and placed here herself. It was her wish that the grief she endured should be remembered in the house for all time, for no one had ever suffered like her; and the inscription, which she caused to be put on the stone, says that if there shall ever come to a mother in the house a sorrow exceeding hers, the statue shall be removed from its place and destroyed, and the fragments buried in the earth with all forgotten things, and the name of Isarte forgotten in the house.”

It oppressed my mind to think of so long a period of time during which that unutterably sad face had gazed down on so many generations of the living. “It is most strange!” I murmured. “But do you think it right, Yoletta, that the grief of one person should be perpetuated like that in the house; for who can look on this face without pain, even when it is remembered that the sorrow it expresses ended so many centuries ago?”

“But she was a mother, Smith, do you not understand? It would not be right for us to wish to have our griefs remembered for ever, to cause sorrow to those who succeed us; but a mother is different: her wishes are sacred, and what she wills is right.”

Her words surprised me not a little, for I had heard of infallible men, but never of women; moreover, the woman I was now going to see was also a “mother in the house,” a successor to this very Isarte. Fearing that I had touched on a dangerous topic, I said no more, and proceeding on our way, we soon reached the mother’s room, the large glass door of which now stood wide open. In the pale light of the moon — for there was no other in the room — we found Chastel on the couch where I had seen her before, but she was lying extended at full length now, and had only one attendant with her.

Yoletta approached her, and, stooping, touched her lips to the pale, still face. “Mother,” she said, “I have brought Smith again; he is anxious to say something to you, if you will hear him.”

“Yes, I will hear him,” she replied. “Let him sit near me; and now go back, for your voice is needed. And you may also leave me now,” she added, addressing the other lady.

The two then departed together, and I proceeded to seat myself on a cushion beside the couch.

“What is it you wish to say to me?” she asked. The words were not very encouraging, but her voice sounded gentler now, and I at once began. “Hush,” she said, before I had spoken two words. “Wait until this ends — I am listening to Yoletta’s voice.”

Through the long, dusky gallery and the open doors soft strains of music were floating to us, and now, mingling with the others, a clearer, bell-like voice was heard, which soared to greater heights; but soon this ceased to be distinguishable, and then she sighed and addressed me again. “Where have you been all the evening, for you were not at supper?”

“Did you know that?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes, I know everything that passes in the house. Reading and work of all kinds are a pain and weariness. The only thing left to me is to listen to what others do or say, and to know all their comings and goings. My life is nothing now but a shadow of other people’s lives.”

“Then,” I said, “I must tell you how I spent the time after seeing you to-day; for I was alone, and no other person can say what I did. I went away along the river until I came to the grove of great trees on the bank, and there I sat until the moon rose, with my heart full of unspeakable pain and bitterness.”

“What made you have those feelings?”

“When I heard of you, and saw you, my heart was drawn to you, and I wished above all things in the world to be allowed to love and serve you, and to have a share in your affection; but your looks and words expressed only contempt and dislike towards me. Would it not have been strange if I had not felt extremely unhappy?”

“Oh,” she replied, “now I can understand the reason of the surprise your words have often caused in the house! Your very feelings seem unlike ours. No other person would have experienced the feelings you speak of for such a cause. It is right to repent your faults, and to bear the burden of them quietly; but it is a sign of an undisciplined spirit to feel bitterness, and to wish to cast the blame of your suffering on another. You forget that I had reason to be deeply offended with you. You also forget my continual suffering, which sometimes makes me seem harsh and unkind against my will.”

“Your words seem only sweet and gracious now,” I returned. “They have lifted a great weight from my heart, and I wish I could repay you for them by taking some portion of your suffering on myself.”

“It is right that you should have that feeling, but idle to express it,” she answered gravely. “If such wishes could be fulfilled my sufferings would have long ceased, since any one of my children would gladly lay down his life to procure me ease.”

To this speech, which sounded like another rebuke, I made no reply.

“Oh, this is bitterness indeed — a bitterness you cannot know,” she resumed after a while. “For you and for others there is always the refuge of death from continued sufferings: the brief pang of dissolution, bravely met, is nothing in comparison with a lingering agony like mine, with its long days and longer nights, extending to years, and that great blackness of the end ever before the mind. This only a mother can know, since the horror of utter darkness, and vain clinging to life, even when it has ceased to have any hope or joy in it, is the penalty she must pay for her higher state.”

I could not understand all her words, and only murmured in reply: “You are young to speak of death.”

“Yes, young; that is why it is so bitter to think of. In old age the feelings are not so keen.” Then suddenly she put out her hands towards me, and, when I offered mine, caught my fingers with a nervous grasp and drew herself to a sitting position. “Ah, why must I be afflicted with a misery others have not known!” she exclaimed excitedly. “To be lifted above the others, when so young; to have one child only; then after so brief a period of happiness, to be smitten with barrenness, and this lingering malady ever gnawing like a canker at the roots of life! Who has suffered like me in the house? You only, Isarte, among the dead. I will go to you, for my grief is more than I can bear; and it may be that I shall find comfort even in speaking to the dead, and to a stone. Can you bear me in your arms?” she said, clasping me round the neck. “Take me up in your arms and carry me to Isarte.”

I knew what she meant, having so recently heard the story of Isarte, and in obedience to her command I raised her from the couch. She was tall, and heavier than I had expected, though so greatly emaciated; but the thought that she was Yoletta’s mother, and the mother of the house, nerved me to my task, and cautiously moving step by step through the gloom, I carried her safely to that white-haired, moonlit woman of stone in the long gallery. When I had ascended the steps and brought her sufficiently near, she put her arms about the statue, and pressed its stony lips with hers.

“Isarte, Isarte, how cold your lips are!” she murmured, in low, desponding tones. “Now, when I look into these eyes, which are yours, and yet not yours, and kiss these stony lips, how sorely does the hunger in my heart tempt me to sin! But suffering has not darkened my reason; I know it is an offense to ask anything of Him who gives us life and all good things freely, and has no pleasure in seeing us miserable. This thought restrains me; else I would cry to Him to turn this stone to flesh, and for one brief hour to bring back to it the vanished spirit of Isarte. For there is no one living that can understand my pain; but you would understand it, and put my tired head against your breast, and cover me with your grief-whitened hair as with a mantle. For your pain was like mine, and exceeded mine, and no soul could measure it, therefore in the hunger of your heart you looked far off into the future, where some one would perhaps have a like affliction, and suffer without hope, as you suffered, and measure your pain, and love your memory, and feel united with you, even over the gulf of long centuries of time. You would speak to me of it all, and tell me that the greatest grief was to go away into darkness, leaving no one with your blood and your spirit to inherit the house. This also is my grief, Isarte, for I am barren and eaten up by death, and must soon go away to be where you are. When I am gone, the father of the house will take no other one to his bosom, for he is old, and his life is nearly complete; and in a little while he will follow me, but with no pain and anguish like mine to cloud his serene spirit. And who will then inherit our place? Ah, my sister, how bitter to think of it! for then a stranger will be the mother of the house, and my one only child will sit at her feet, calling her mother, serving her with her hands, and loving and worshiping her with her heart!”

The excitement had now burned itself out: she had dropped her head wearily on my shoulder, and bade me take her back. When I had safely deposited her on the couch again, she remained for some minutes with her face covered, silently weeping.

The scene in the gallery had deeply affected me; now, however, while I sat by her, pondering over it, my mind reverted to that vanished world of sorrow and different social conditions in which I had lived, and where the lot of so many poor suffering souls seemed to me so much more desolate than that of this unhappy lady, who had, I imagined, much to console her. It even seemed to me that the grief I had witnessed was somewhat morbid and overstrained; and, thinking that it would perhaps divert her mind from brooding too much over her own troubles, I ventured, when she had grown calm again, to tell her some of my memories. I asked her to imagine a state of the world and the human family, in which all women were, in one sense, on an equality — all possessing the same capacity for suffering; and where all were, or would be, wives and mothers, and without any such mysterious remedy against lingering pain as she had spoken of. But I had not proceeded far with my picture before she interrupted me.

“Do not say more,” she said, with an accent of displeasure. “This, I suppose, is another of those grotesque fancies you sometimes give expression to, about which I heard a great deal when you first came to us. That all people should be equal, and all women wives and mothers seems to me a very disordered and a very repulsive idea The one consolation in my pain, the one glory of my life could not exist in such a state as that, and my condition would be pitiable indeed. All others would be equally miserable. The human race would multiply, until the fruits of the soil would be insufficient for its support; and earth would be filled with degenerate beings, starved in body and debased in mind — all clinging to an existence utterly without joy. Life is dark to me, but not to others: these are matters beyond you, and it is presumptuous in one of your condition to attempt to comfort me with idle fancies.”

After some moments of silence, she resumed: “The father has said to-day that you came to us from an island where even the customs of the people are different from ours; and perhaps one of their unhappy methods is to seek to medicine a real misery by imagining some impossible and immeasurably greater one. In no other way can I account for your strange words to me; for I cannot believe that any race exists so debased as actually to practice the things you speak of. Remember that I do not ask or desire to be informed. We have a different way; for although it is conceivable that present misery might be mitigated, or forgotten for a season, by giving up the soul to delusions, even by summoning before the mind repulsive and horrible images, that would be to put to an unlawful use, and to pervert, the brightest faculties our Father has given us: therefore we seek no other support in all sufferings and calamities but that of reason only. If you wish for my affection, you will not speak of such things again, but will endeavor to purify yourself from a mental vice, which may sometimes, in periods of suffering, give you a false comfort for a brief season, only to degrade you, and sink you later in a deeper misery. You must now leave me.”

This unexpected and sharp rebuke did not anger me, but it made me very sad; for I now perceived plainly enough that no great advantage would come to me from Chastel’s acquaintance, since it was necessary to be so very circumspect with her. Deeply troubled, and in a somewhat confused state of mind, I rose to depart. Then she placed her thin, feverish white hand on mine. “You need not go away again,” she said, “to indulge in bitter feelings by yourself because I have said this to you. You may come with the others to see me and talk to me whenever I am able to sit here and bear it. I shall not remember your offense, but shall be glad to know that there is another soul in the house to love and honor me.”

With such comfort as these words afforded I returned to the music-room, and, finding it empty, went out to the terrace, where the others were now strolling about in knots and couples, conversing and enjoying the lovely moonlight. Wandering a little distance away by myself, I sat down on a bench under a tree, and presently Yoletta came to me there, and closely scrutinized my face.

“Have you nothing to tell me?” she asked. “Are you happier now?”

“Yes, dearest, for I have been spoke to very kindly; and I should have been happier if only — ” But I checked myself in time, and said no more to her about my conversation with the mother. To myself I said: “Oh, that island, that island! Why can’t I forget its miserable customs, or, at any rate, stick to my own resolution to hold my tongue about them?”

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