A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 14

From that day I was frequently allowed to enter the Mother’s Room, but, as I had feared, these visits failed to bring me into any closer relationship with the lady of the house. She had indeed forgotten my offense: I was one of her children, sharing equally with the others in her impartial affection, and privileged to sit at her feet to relate to her the incidents of the day, or describe all I had seen, and sometimes to touch her thin white hand with my lips. But the distance separating us was not forgotten. At the two first interviews she had taught me, once for all, that it was for me to love, honor, and serve her, and that anything beyond that — any attempt to win her confidence, to enter into her thoughts, or make her understand my feelings and aspirations — was regarded as pure presumption on my part. The result was that I was less happy than I had been before knowing her: my naturally buoyant and hopeful temper became tinged with melancholy, and that vision of exquisite bliss in the future, which had floated before me, luring me on, now began to look pale, and to seem further and further away.

After my walk with Yoletta — if it can be called a walk — I began to look out for the rainbow lilies, and soon discovered that everywhere under the grass they were beginning to sprout from the soil. At first I found them in the moist valley of the river, but very soon they were equally abundant on the higher lands, and even on barren, stony places, where they appeared latest. I felt very curious about these flowers, of which Yoletta had spoken so enthusiastically, and watched the slow growth of the long, slender buds from day to day with considerable impatience. At length, in a moist hollow of the forest, I was delighted to find the full-blown flower. In shape it resembled a tulip, but was more open, and the color a most vivid orange yellow; it had a slight delicate perfume, and was very pretty, with a peculiar waxy gloss on the thick petals, still, I was rather disappointed, since the name of “rainbow lily,” and Yoletta’s words, had led me to expect a many-colored flower of surpassing beauty.

I plucked the lily carefully, and was taking it home to present it to her, when all at once I remembered that only on one occasion had I seen flowers in her hand, and in the hands of the others, and that was when they were burying their dead. They never wore a flower, nor had I ever seen one in the house, not even in that room where Chastel was kept a prisoner by her malady, and where her greatest delight was to have nature in all its beauty and fragrance brought to her in the conversation of her children. The only flowers in the house were in their illuminations, and those wrought in metal and carved in wood, and the immortal, stony flowers of many brilliant hues in their mosaics. I began to fear that there was some superstition which made it seem wrong to them to gather flowers, except for funeral ceremonies, and afraid of offending from want of thought, I dropped the lily on the ground, and said nothing about it to any one.

Then, before any more open lilies were found, an unexpected sorrow came to me. After changing my dress on returning from the fields one afternoon, I was taken to the hall of judgment, and at once jumped to the conclusion that I had again unwittingly fallen into disgrace; but on arriving at that uncomfortable apartment I perceived that this was not the case. Looking round at the assembled company I missed Yoletta, and my heart sank in me, and I even wished that my first impression had proved correct. On the great stone table, before which the father was seated, lay an open folio, the leaf displayed being only illuminated at the top and inner margin; the colored part at the top I noticed was torn, the rent extending down to about the middle of the page.

Presently the dear girl appeared, with tearful eyes and flushed face, and advancing hurriedly to the father, she stood before him with downcast eyes.

“My daughter, tell me how and why you did this?” he demanded, pointing to the open volume.

“Oh, father, look at this,” she returned, half-sobbing, and touching the lower end of the colored margin with her finger. “Do you see how badly it is colored? And I had spent three days in altering and retouching it, and still it displeased me. Then, in sudden anger, I pushed the book from me, and seeing it slipping from the stand I caught the leaf to prevent it from falling, and it was torn by the weight of the book. Oh, dear father, will you forgive me?”

“Forgive you, my daughter? Do you not know how it grieves my heart to punish you; but how can this offense to the house be forgiven, which must stand in evidence against us from generation to generation? For we cease to be, but the house remains; and the writing we leave on it, whether it be good or evil, that too remains for ever. An unkind word is an evil thing, an unkind deed a worse, but when these are repented they may be forgiven and forgotten. But an injury done to the house cannot be forgotten, for it is the flaw in the stone that keeps its place, the crude, inharmonious color which cannot be washed out with water. Consider, my daughter, in the long life of the house, how many unborn men will turn the leaves of this book, and coming to this leaf will be offended at so grievous a disfigurement! If we of this generation were destined to live for ever, then it might be written on this page for a punishment and warning:” Yoletta tore it in her anger. “But we must pass away and be nothing to succeeding generations, and it would not be right that Yoletta’s name should be remembered for the wrong she did to the house, and all she did for its good forgotten.”

A painful silence ensued, then, lifting her tear-stained face, she said: “Oh father, what must my punishment be?”

“Dear child, it will be a light one, for we consider your youth and impulsive nature, and also that the wrong you did was partly the result of accident. For thirty days you must live apart from us, subsisting on bread and water, and holding intercourse with one person only, who will assist you with your work and provide you with all things necessary.”

This seemed to me a harsh, even a cruel punishment for so trivial an offense, or accident, rather; but she was not perhaps of the same mind, for she kissed his hand, as if in gratitude for his leniency.

“Tell me, child,” he said, putting his hand on her head, and regarding her with misty eyes, “who shall attend you in your seclusion?”

“Edra,” she murmured; and the other, coming forward, took her by the hand and led her away.

I gazed eagerly after her as she retired, hungering for one look from her dear eyes before that long separation; but they were filled with tears and bent on the floor, and in a moment she was gone from sight.

The succeeding days were to me dreary beyond description. For the first time I became fully conscious of the strength of a passion which had now become a consuming fire in my breast, and could only end in utter misery — perhaps in destruction — or else in a degree of happiness no mortal had ever tasted before. I went about listlessly, like one on whom some heavy calamity has fallen: all interest in my work was lost; my food seemed tasteless; study and conversation had become a weariness; even in those divine concerts, which fitly brought each tranquil day to its close, there was no charm now, since Yoletta’s voice, which love had taught my dull ear to distinguish no longer had any part in it. I was not allowed to enter the Mother’s Room of an evening now, and the exclusion extended also to the others, Edra only excepted; for at this hour, when it was customary for the family to gather in the music-room, Yoletta was taken from her lonely chamber to be with her mother. This was told me, and I also elicited, by means of some roundabout questioning, that it was always in the mother’s power to have any per-son undergoing punishment taken to her, she being, as it were, above the law. She could even pardon a delinquent and set him free if she felt so minded, although in this case she had not chosen to exercise her prerogative, probably because her “sufferings had not clouded her understanding.” They were treating her very hardly — father and mother both — I thought in my bitterness.

The gradual opening of the rainbow lilies served only to remind me every hour and every minute of that bright young spirit thus harshly deprived of the pleasure she had so eagerly anticipated. She, above them all, rejoiced in the beauty of this visible world, regarding nature in some of its moods and aspects with a feeling almost bordering on adoration; but, alas! she alone was shut out from this glory which God had spread over the earth for the delight of all his children.

Now I knew why these autumnal flowers were called rainbow lilies, and remembered how Yoletta had told me that they gave a beauty to the earth which could not be described or imagined. The flowers were all undoubtedly of one species, having the same shape and perfume, although varying greatly in size, according to the nature of the soil on which they grew. But in different situations they varied in color, one color blending with, or passing by degrees into another, wherever the soil altered its character. Along the valleys, where they first began to bloom, and in all moist situations, the hue was yellow, varying, according to the amount of moisture in different places, from pale primrose to deep orange, this passing again into vivid scarlet and reds of many shades. On the plains the reds prevailed, changing into various purples on hills and mountain slopes; but high on the mountains the color was blue; and this also had many gradations, from the lower deep cornflower blue to a delicate azure on the summits, resembling that of the forget-me-not and hairbell.

The weather proved singularly favorable to those who spent their time in admiring the lilies, and this now seemed to be almost the only occupation of the inmates, excepting, of course, sick Chastel, imprisoned Yoletta, and myself — I being too forlorn to admire anything. Calm, bright days without a cloud succeeded each other, as if the very elements held the lilies sacred and ventured not to cast any shadow over their mystic splendor. Each morning one of the men would go out some distance from the house and blow on a horn, which could be heard distinctly two miles away; and presently a number of horses, in couples and troops, would come galloping in, after which they would remain all the morning grazing and gamboling about the house. These horses were now in constant requisition, all the members of the family, male and female, spending several hours every day in careering over the surrounding country, seemingly without any particular object. The contagion did not affect me, however, for, although I had always been a bold rider (in my own country), and excessively fond of horseback exercise, their fashion of riding without bridles, and on diminutive straw saddles, seemed to me neither safe nor pleasant.

One morning after breakfasting, I took my ax, and was proceeding slowly, immersed in thought, to the forest, when hearing a slight swishing sound of hoofs on the grass, I turned and beheld the venerable father, mounted on his charger, and rushing away towards the hills at an insanely break-neck pace. His long garment was gathered tightly round his spare form, his feet drawn up and his head bent far forward, while the wind of his speed divided his beard, which flew out in two long streamers behind. All at once he caught sight of me, and, touching the animal’s neck, swept gracefully round in narrowing circles, each circle bringing him nearer, until he came to a stand at my side; then his horse began rubbing his nose on my hand, its breath feeling like fire on my skin.

“Smith,” said he, with a grave smile, “if you cannot be happy unless you are laboring in the forest with your ax you must proceed with your wood-cutting; but I confess it surprises me as much to see you going to work on a day like this, as it would to see you walking inverted on your hands, and dangling your heels in the air.”

“Why?” said I, surprised at this speech.

“If you do not know I must tell you. At night we sleep; in the morning we bathe; we eat when we are hungry, converse when we feel inclined, and on most days labor a certain number of hours. But more than these things, which have a certain amount of pleasure in them, are the precious moments when nature reveals herself to us in all her beauty. We give ourselves wholly to her then, and she refreshes us; the splendor fades, but the wealth it brings to the soul remains to gladden us. That must be a dull spirit that cannot suspend its toil when the sun is setting in glory, or the violet rainbow appears on the cloud. Every day brings us special moments to gladden us, just as we have in the house every day our time of melody and recreation. But this supreme and more enduring glory of nature comes only once every year; and while it lasts, all labor, except that which is pressing and necessary, is unseemly, and an offense to the Father of the world.” He paused, but I did not know what to say in reply, and presently he resumed: “My son, there are horses waiting for you, and unless you are more unlike us in mind than I ever imagined, you will now take one and ride to the hills, where, owing to the absence of forests, the earth can now be seen at its best.”

I was about to thank him and turn back, but the thought of Yoletta, to whom each heavy day now seemed a year, oppressed by heart, and I continued standing motionless, with downcast eyes, wishing, yet fearing, to speak.

“Why is your mind troubled, my son?” he said kindly.

“Father,” I answered, that word which I now ventured to use for the first time trembling from my lips, “the beauty of the earth is very much to me, but I cannot help remembering that to Yoletta it is even more, and the thought takes away all my pleasure. The flowers will fade, and she will not see them.”

“My son, I am glad to hear these words,” he answered, somewhat to my surprise, for I had greatly feared that I had adopted too bold a course. “For I see now,” he continued, “that this seeming indifference, which gave me some pain, does not proceed from an incapacity on your part to feel as we do, but from a tender love and compassion — that most precious of all our emotions, which will serve to draw you closer to us. I have also thought much of Yoletta during these beautiful days, grieving for her, and this morning I have allowed her to go out into the hills, so that during this day, at least, she will be able to share in our pleasure.”

Scarcely waiting for another word to be spoken, I flew back to the house, anxious enough for a ride now. The little straw saddle seemed now as comfortable as a couch, nor was the bridle missed; for, nerved with that intense desire to find and speak to my love, I could have ridden securely on the slippery back of a giraffe, charging over rough ground with a pack of lions at its heels. Away I went at a speed never perhaps attained by any winner of the Derby, which made the shining hairs of my horse’s mane whistle in the still air; down valleys, up hills, flying like a bird over roaring burns, rocks, and thorny bushes, never pausing until I was far away among those hills where that strange accident had befallen me, and from which I had recovered to find the earth so changed. I then ascended a great green hill, the top of which must have been over a thousand feet above the surrounding country. When I had at length reached this elevation, which I did walking and climbing, my steed docilely scrambling up after me, the richness and novelty of the unimaginable and indescribable scene which opened before me affected me in a strange way, smiting my heart with a pain intense and unfamiliar. For the first time I experienced within myself that miraculous power the mind possesses of reproducing instantaneously, and without perspective, the events, feelings, and thoughts of long years — an experience which sometimes comes to a person suddenly confronted with death, and in other moments of supreme agitation. A thousand memories and a thousand thoughts were stirring in me: I was conscious now, as I had not been before, of the past and the present, and these two existed in my mind, yet separated by a great gulf of time — a blank and a nothingness which yet oppressed me with its horrible vastness. How aimless and solitary, how awful my position seemed! It was like that of one beneath whose feet the world suddenly crumbles into ashes and dust, and is scattered throughout the illimitable void, while he survives, blown to some far planet whose strange aspect, however beautiful, fills him with an undefinable terror. And I knew, and the knowledge only intensified my pain, that my agitation, the strugglings of my soul to recover that lost life, were like the vain wing-beats of some woodland bird, blown away a thousand miles over the sea, into which it must at last sink down and perish.

Such a mental state cannot endure for more than a few moments, and passing away, it left me weary and despondent. With dull, joyless eyes I continued gazing for upwards of an hour on the prospect beneath me; for I had now given up all hopes of seeing Yoletta, not yet having encountered a single person since starting for my ride. All about me the summit was dotted with small lilies of a delicate blue, but at a little distance the sober green of the grass became absorbed, as it were, in the brighter flower-tints, and the neighboring summits all appeared of a pure cerulean hue. Lower down this passed into the purples of the slopes and the reds of the plains, while the valleys, fringed with scarlet, were like rivers of crocus-colored fire. Distance, and the light, autumnal haze, had a subduing and harmonizing effect on the sea of brilliant color, and further away on the immense horizon it all faded into the soft universal blue. Over this flowery paradise my eyes wandered restlessly, for my heart was restless in me, and had lost the power of pleasure. With a slight bitterness I recalled some of the words the father had spoken to me that morning. It was all very well, I thought, for this venerable graybeard to talk about refreshing the soul with the sight of all this beauty; but he seemed to lose sight of the important fact that there was a considerable difference in our respective ages, that the raging hunger of the heart, which he had doubtless experienced at one time of his life, was, like bodily hunger, not to be appeased with splendid sunsets, rainbows and rainbow lilies, however beautiful they might seem to the eye.

Presently, on a second and lower summit of the long mountain I had ascended, I caught sight of a person on horseback, standing motionless as a figure of stone. At that distance the horse looked no bigger than a greyhound, yet so marvelously transparent was the mountain air, that I distinctly recognized Yoletta in the rider. I started up, and sprang joyfully onto my own horse, and waving my hand to attract her attention, galloped recklessly down the slope; but when I reached the opposing summit she was no longer there, nor anywhere in sight, and it was as if the earth had opened and swallowed her.

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