A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 15

During Yoletta’s seclusion, my education was not allowed to suffer, her place as instructress having been taken by Edra. I was pleased with this arrangement, thinking to derive some benefit from it, beyond what she might teach me; but very soon I was forced to abandon all hope of communicating with the imprisoned girl through her friend and jailer. Edra was much disturbed at the suggestion; for I did venture to suggest it, though in a tentative, roundabout form, not feeling sure of my ground: previous mistakes had made me cautious. Her manner was a sufficient warning; and I did not broach the subject a second time. One afternoon, however, I met with a great and unexpected consolation, though even this was mixed with some perplexing matters.

One day, after looking long and earnestly into my face, said my gentle teacher to me; “Do you know that you are changed? All your gay spirits have left you, and you are pale and thin and sad. Why is this?”

My face crimsoned at this very direct question, for I knew of that change in me, and went about in continual fear that others would presently notice it, and draw their own conclusions. She continued looking at me, until for very shame I turned my face aside; for if I had confessed that separation from Yoletta caused my dejection, she would know what that feeling meant, and I feared that any such premature declaration would be the ruin of my prospects.

“I know the reason, though I ask you,” she continued, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You are grieving for Yoletta — I saw it from the first. I shall tell her how pale and sad you have grown — how different from what you were. But why do you turn your face from me?”

I was perplexed, but her sympathy gave me courage, and made me determined to give her my confidence. “If you know,” said I, “that I am grieving for Yoletta, can you not also guess why I hesitate and hide my face from you?”

“No; why is it? You love me also, though not with so great a love; but we do love each other, Smith, and you can confide in me?”

I looked into her face now, straight into her transparent eyes, and it was plain to see that she had not yet guessed my meaning.

“Dearest Edra,” I said, taking her hand, “I love you as much as if one mother had given us birth. But I love Yoletta with a different love — not as one loves a sister. She is more to me than any one else in the world; so much is she that life without her would be a burden. Do you not know what that means?” And then, remembering Yoletta’s words on the hills, I added: “Do you not know of more than one kind of love?”

“No,” she answered, still gazing inquiringly into my face. “But I know that your love for her so greatly exceeds all others, that it is like a different feeling. I shall tell her, since it is sweet to be loved, and she will be glad to know it.”

“And after you have told her, Edra, shall you make known her reply to me?”

“No, Smith; it is an offense to suggest, or even to think, such a thing, however much you may love her, for she is not allowed to converse with any one directly or through me. She told me that she saw you on the hills, and that you tried to go to her, and it distressed her very much. But she will forgive you when I have told her how great your love is, that the desire to look on her face made you forget how wrong it was to approach her.”

How strange and incomprehensible it seemed that Edra had so misinterpreted my feeling! It seemed also to me that they all, from the father of the house downwards, were very blind indeed to set down so strong an emotion to mere brotherly affection. I had wished, yet feared, to remove the scales from their eyes; and now, in an unguarded moment, I had made the attempt, and my gentle confessor had failed to understand me. Nevertheless, I extracted some comfort from this conversation; for Yoletta would know how greatly my love exceeded that of her own kindred, and I hoped against hope that a responsive emotion would at last awaken in her breast.

When the last of those leaden-footed thirty days arrived — the day on which, according to my computation, Yoletta would recover liberty before the sun set — I rose early from the straw pallet where I had tossed all night, prevented from sleeping by the prospect of reunion, and the fever of impatience I was in. The cold river revived me, and when we were assembled in the breakfast-room I observed Edra watching me, with a curious, questioning smile on her lips. I asked her the reason.

“You are like a person suddenly recovered from sickness,” she replied. “Your eyes sparkle like sunshine on the water, and your cheeks that were so pallid yesterday burn redder than an autumn leaf.” Then, smiling, she added these precious words: “Yoletta will be glad to return to us, more on your account than her own.”

After we had broken our fast, I determined to go to the forest and spend the day there. For many days past I had shirked woodcutting; but now it seemed impossible for me to settle down to any quiet, sedentary kind of work, the consuming impatience and boundless energy I felt making me wish for some unusually violent task, such as would exhaust the body and give, perhaps, a rest to the mind. Taking my ax, and the usual small basket of provisions for my noonday meal, I left the house; and on this morning I did not walk, but ran as if for a wager, taking long, flying leaps over bushes and streams that had never tempted me before. Arrived at the scene of action, I selected a large tree which had been marked out for felling, and for hours I hacked at it with an energy almost superhuman; and at last, before I had felt any disposition to rest, the towering old giant, bowing its head and rustling its sere foliage as if in eternal farewell to the skies, came with a mighty crash to the earth. Scarcely was it fallen before I felt that I had labored too long and violently: the dry, fresh breeze stung my burning cheeks like needles of ice, my knees trembled under me, and the whole world seemed to spin round; then, casting myself upon a bed of chips and withered leaves, I lay gasping for breath, with only life enough left in me to wonder whether I had fainted or not. Recovered at length from this exhausted condition, I sat up, and rejoiced to observe that half the day — that last miserable day — had already flown. Then the thoughts of the approaching evening, and all the happiness it would bring, inspired me with fresh zeal and strength, and, starting to my feet, and taking no thought of my food, I picked up the ax and made a fresh onslaught on the fallen tree. I had already accomplished more than a day’s work, but the fever in my blood and brain urged me on to the arduous task of lopping off the huge branches; and my exertions did not cease until once more the world, with everything on it, began revolving like a whirligig, compelling me to desist and take a still longer rest. And sitting there I thought only of Yoletta. How would she look after that long seclusion? Pale, and sad too perhaps; and her sweet, soulful eyes — oh, would I now see in them that new light for which I had watched and waited so long?

Then, while I thus mused, I heard, not far off, a slight rustling sound, as of a hare startled at seeing me, and bounding away over the withered leaves; and lifting up my eyes from the ground, I beheld Yoletta herself hastening towards me, her face shining with joy. I sprang forward to meet her, and in another moment she was locked in my arms. That one moment of unspeakable happiness seemed to out-weigh a hundred times all the misery I had endured. “Oh, my sweet darling — at last, at last, my pain is ended!” I murmured, while pressing her again and again to my heart, and kissing that dear face, which looked now so much thinner than when I had last seen it.

She bent back her head, like Genevieve in the ballad, to look me in the face, her eyes filled with tears — crystal, happy drops, which dimmed not their brightness. But her face was pale, with a pensive pallor like that of the Gloire de Dijon rose; only now excitement had suffused her cheeks with the tints of that same rose — that red so unlike the bloom on other faces in vanished days; so tender and delicate and precious above all tints in nature!

“I know,” she spoke, “how you were grieving for me, that you were pale and dejected. Oh, how strange you should love me so much!”

“Strange, darling — that word again! It is the one sweetness and joy of life. And are you not glad to be loved?”

“Oh, I cannot tell you how glad; but am I not here in your arms to show it? When I heard that you had gone to the wood I did not wait, but ran here as fast as I could. Do you remember that evening on the hill, when you vexed me with questions, and I could not understand your words? Now, when I love you so much more, I can understand them better. Tell me, have I not done as you wished, and given myself to you, body and soul? How thirty days have changed you! Oh, Smith, do you love me so much?”

“I love you so much, dear, that if you were to die, there would be no more pleasure in life for me, and I should prefer to lie near you underground. All day long I am thinking of you, and when I sleep you are in all ray dreams.”

She still continued gazing into my face, those happy tears still shining in her eyes, listening to my words; but alas! on that sweet, beautiful face, so full of changeful expression, there was not the expression I sought, and no sign of that maidenly shame which gave to Genevieve in the ballad such an exquisite grace in her lover’s eyes.

“I also had dreams of you,” she answered. “They came to me after Edra had told me how pale and sad you had grown.”

“Tell me one of your dreams, darling.”

“I dreamed that I was lying awake on my bed, with the moon shining on me; I was cold, and crying bitterly because I had been left so long alone. All at once I saw you standing at my side in the moonlight. ‘Poor Yoletta,’ you said, ‘your tears have chilled you like winter rain.’ Then you kissed them dry, and when you had put your arms about me, I drew your face against my bosom, and rested warm and happy in your love.”

Oh, how her delicious words maddened me! Even my tongue and lips suddenly became dry as ashes with the fever in me, and could only whisper huskily when I strove to answer. I released her from my arms and sat down on the fallen tree, all my blissful raptures turned to a great despondence. Would it always be thus — would she continue to embrace me, and speak words that simulated passion while no such feeling touched her heart? Such a state of things could not endure, and my passion, mocked and baffled again and again, would rend me to pieces, and hurl me on to madness and self-destruction. For how many men had been driven by love to such an end, and the women they had worshiped, and miserably died for, compared with Yoletta, were like creatures of clay compared with one of the immortals. And was she not a being of a higher order than myself? It was folly to think otherwise. But how had mortals always fared when they aspired to mate with celestials? I tried then to remember something bearing on this important point, but my mind was becoming strangely confused. I closed my eyes to think, and presently opening them again, saw Yoletta kneeling before me, gazing up into my face with an alarmed expression.

“What is the matter, Smith, you seem ill?” she said; and then, laying her fresh palm on my forehead, added: “Your head burns like fire.”

“No wonder,” I returned. “I’m worrying my brains trying to remember all about them. What were their names, and what did they do to those who loved them — can’t you tell me?”

“Oh, you are ill — you have a fever and may die!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms about my neck and pressing her cheek to mine.

I felt a strange imbecility of mind, yet it seemed to anger me to be told that I was ill. “I am not ill,” I protested feebly. “I never felt better in my life! But can’t you answer me — who were they, and what did they do? Tell me, or I shall go mad.”

She started up, and taking the small metal whistle hanging at her side, blew a shrill note that seemed to pierce my brain like a steel weapon. I tried to get up from my seat on the trunk, but only slipped down to the ground. A dull mist and gloom seemed to be settling down on everything; daylight, and hope with it, was fast forsaking the world. But something was coming to us — out of that universal mist and darkness closing around us it came bounding swiftly through the wood — a huge gray wolf! No, not a wolf — a wolf was nothing to it! A mighty, roaring lion crashing through the forest; a monster ever increasing in size, vast and of horrible aspect, surpassing all monsters of the imagination — all beasts, gigantic and deformed, that had ever existed in past geologic ages; a lion with teeth like elephants’ tusks, its head clothed as with a black thunder-cloud, through which its eyes glared like twin, blood-red suns! And she — my love — with a cry on her lips, was springing forth to meet it — lost, lost for ever! I struggled frantically to rise and fly to her assistance, and rose, after many efforts, to my knees, only to fall again to the earth, insensible.

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