A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 16

The violent fever into which I had fallen did not abate until the third day, when I fell into a profound slumber, from which I woke refreshed and saved. I did not, on awakening, find myself in my own familiar cell, but in a spacious apartment new to me, on a comfortable bed, beside which Edra was seated. Almost my first feeling was one of disappointment at not seeing Yoletta there, and presently I began to fear that in the ravings of delirium I had spoken things which had plucked the scales from the eyes of my kind friends in a very rough way indeed, and that the being I loved best had been permanently withdrawn from my sight. It was a blessed relief when Edra, in answer to the questions I put with some heart-quakings to her, informed me that I had talked a great deal in my fever, but unintelligibly, continually asking questions about Venus, Diana, Juno, and many other persons whose names had never before been heard in the house. How fortunate that my crazy brain had thus continued vexing itself with this idle question! She also told me that Yoletta had watched day and night at my side, that at last, when the fever left me, and I had fallen into that cooling slumber, she too, with her hand on mine, had dropped her head on the pillow and fallen asleep. Then, without waking her, they had carried her away to her own room, and Edra had taken her place by my side.

“Have you nothing more to ask?” she said at length, with an accent of surprise.

“No; nothing more. What you have told me has made me very happy — what more can I wish to know?”

“But there is more to tell you, Smith. We know now that your illness is the result of your own imprudence; and as soon as you are well enough to leave your room and bear it, you must suffer the punishment.”

“What! Punished for being ill!” I exclaimed, sitting bolt upright in my bed. “What do you mean, Edra? I never heard such outrageous nonsense in my life!”

She was disturbed at this outburst, but quietly and gravely repeated that I must certainly be punished for my illness.

Remembering what their punishments were, I had the prospect of a second long separation from Yoletta, and the thought of such excessive severity, or rather of such cruel injustice, made me wild. “By Heaven, I shall not submit to it!” I exclaimed. “Punished for being ill — who ever heard of such a thing! I suppose that by-and-by it will be discovered that the bridge of my nose is not quite straight, or that I can’t see round the corner, and that also will be set down as a crime, to be expiated in solitary confinement, on a bread-and-water diet! No, you shall not punish me; rather than give in to such tyranny I’ll walk off and leave the house for ever!”

She regarded me with an expression almost approaching to horror on her gentle face, and for some moments made no reply. Then I remembered that if I carried out that insane threat I should indeed lose Yoletta, and the very thought of such a loss was more than I could endure; and for a moment I almost hated the love which made me so helpless and miserable — so powerless to oppose their stupid and barbarous practices. It would have been sweet then to have felt free — free to fling them a curse, and go away, shaking the dust of their house from my shoes, supposing that any dust had adhered to them.

Then Edra began to speak again, and gravely and sorrowfully, but without a touch of austerity in her tone or manner, censured me for making use of such irrational language, and for allowing bitter, resentful thoughts to enter my heart. But the despondence and sullen rage into which I had been thrown made me proof even against the medicine of an admonition imparted so gently, and, turning my face away, I stubbornly refused to make any reply. For a while she was silent, but I misjudged her when I imagined that she would now leave me, offended, to my own reflections.

“Do you not know that you are giving me pain?” she said at last, drawing a little closer to me. “A little while ago you told me that you loved me: has that feeling faded so soon, or do you take any pleasure in wounding those you love?”

Her words, and, more than her words, her tender, pleading tone, pierced me with compunction, and I could not resist. “Edra, my sweet sister, do not imagine such a thing!” I said. “I would rather endure many punishments than give you pain. My love for you cannot fade while I have life and understanding. It is in me like greenness in the leaf — that beautiful color which can only be changed by sere decay.”

She smiled forgiveness, and with a humid brightness in her eyes, which somehow made me think of that joy of the angels over one sinner that repenteth, bent down and touched her lips to mine. “How can you love any one more than that, Smith?” she said. “Yet you say that your love for Yoletta exceeds all others.”

“Yes, dear, exceeds all others, as the light of the sun exceeds that of the moon and the stars. Can you not understand that — has no man ever loved you with a love like that, my sister?”

She shook her head and sighed. Did she not understand my meaning now — had not my words brought back some sweet and sorrowful memory? With her hands folded idly on her lap, and her face half averted, she sat gazing at nothing. It seemed impossible that this woman, so tender and so beautiful, should never have experienced in herself or witnessed in another, the feeling I had questioned her about. But she made no further reply to my words; and as I lay there watching her, the drowsy spirit the fever had left in me overcame my brain, and I slept once more.

For several days, which brought me so little strength that I was not permitted to leave the sick-room, I heard nothing further about my punishment, for I purposely refrained from asking any questions, and no person appeared inclined to bring forward so disagreeable a subject. At length I was pronounced well enough to go about the house, although still very feeble, and I was conducted, not to the judgment-room, where I had expected to be taken, but to the Mother’s Room; and there I found the father of the house, seated with Chastel, and with them seven or eight of the others. They all welcomed me, and seemed glad to see me out again; but I could not help remarking a certain subdued, almost solemn air about them, which seemed to remind me that I was regarded as an offender already found guilty, who had now been brought up to receive judgment.

“My son,” said the father, addressing me in a calm, judicial tone which at once put my last remaining hopes to flight, “it is a consolation to us to know that your offense is of such a nature that it cannot diminish our esteem for you, or loosen the bonds of affection which unite you to us. You are still feeble, and perhaps a little confused in mind concerning the events of the last few days: I do not therefore press you to give an account of them, but shall simply state your offense, and if I am mistaken in any particular you shall correct me. The great love you have for Yoletta,” he continued — and at this I started and blushed painfully, but the succeeding words served to show that I had only too little cause for alarm — “the great love you have for Yoletta caused you much suffering during her thirty days’ seclusion from us, so that you lost all enjoyment of life, and eating little, and being in continual dejection, your strength was much diminished. On the last day you were so much excited at the prospect of reunion with her, that you went to your task in the woods almost fasting, and probably after spending a restless night. Tell me if this is not so?”

“I did not sleep that night,” I replied, somewhat huskily.

“Unrefreshed by sleep and with lessened strength,” he continued, “you went to the woods, and in order to allay that excitement in your mind, you labored with such energy that by noon you had accomplished a task which, in another and calmer condition of mind and body, would have occupied you more than one day. In thus acting you had already been guilty of a serious offense against yourself; but even then you might have escaped the consequences if, after finishing your work, you had rested and refreshed yourself with food and drink. This, however, you neglected to do; for when you had fallen insensible to the earth, and Yoletta had called the dog and sent it to the house to summon assistance, the food you had taken with you was found untasted in the basket. Your life was thus placed in great peril; and although it is good to lay life down when it has become a burden to ourselves and others, being darkened by that failure of power from which there is no recovery, wantonly or carelessly to endanger it in the flower of its strength and beauty is a great folly and a great offense. Consider how deep our grief would have been, especially the grief of Yoletta, if this culpable disregard of your own safety and well-being had ended fatally, as it came so near ending! It is therefore just and righteous that an offense of such a nature should be recompensed; but it is a light offense, not like one committed against the house, or even against another person, and we also remember the occasion of it, since it was no unworthy motive, but exceeding love, which clouded your judgment, and therefore, taking all these things into account, it was my intention to put you away from us for the space of thirteen days.”

Here he paused, as if expecting me to make some reply. He had reproved me so gently, even approving of the emotion, although still entirely in the dark as to its meaning, which had caused my illness, that I was made to feel very submissive, and even grateful to him.

“It is only just,” I replied, “that I should suffer for my fault, and you have tempered justice with more mercy than I deserve.”

“You speak with the wisdom of a chastened spirit, my son,” he said, rising and placing his hand on my head; “and your words gladden me all the more for knowing that you were filled with surprise and resentment when told that your offense was one deserving punishment. And now, my son, I have to tell you that you will not be separated from us, for the mother of the house has willed that your offense shall be pardoned.”

I looked in surprise at Chastel, for this was very unexpected: she was gazing at my face with the light of a strange tenderness in her eyes, never seen there before. She extended her hand, and, kneeling before her, I took it in mine and raised it to my lips, and tried, with poor success, to speak my thanks for this rare and beautiful act of mercy. Then the others surrounded me to express their congratulations, the men pressing my hands, but not so the women, for they all freely kissed me; but when Yoletta, coming last, put her white arms about my neck and pressed her lips to mine, the ecstasy I felt was so greatly overbalanced by the pain of my position, and the thought, now almost a conviction, that I was powerless to enlighten them with regard to the nature of the love I felt for her, that I almost shrank from her dear embrace.

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