A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 17

My attack of illness, although sharp, had passed off so quickly that I confidently looked to complete restoration to my former vigorous state of health in a very short time. Nevertheless, many days went by, and I failed to recover strength, but remained pretty much in that condition of body in which I had quitted the sick-room. This surprised and distressed me at first, but in a little time I began to get reconciled to such a state, and even to discover that it had certain advantages, the chief of which was that the tumult of my mind was over for a season, so that I craved for nothing very eagerly. My friends advised me to do no work; but not wishing to eat the bread of idleness — although the bread was little now, as I had little appetite — I made it a rule to go every morning to the workhouse, and occupy myself for two or three hours with some light, mechanical task which put no strain on me, physical or mental. Even this playing at work fatigued me. Then, after changing my dress, I would repair to the music-room to resume my search after hidden knowledge in any books that happened to be there; for I could read now, a result which my sweet schoolmistress had been the first to see, and at once she had abandoned the lessons I had loved so much, leaving me to wander at will, but without a guide, in that wilderness of a strange literature. I had never been to the library, and did not even know in what part of the house it was situated; nor had I ever expressed a wish to see it. And that for two reasons: one was, that I had already half-resolved — my resolutions were usually of that complexion — never to run the risk of appearing desirous of knowing too much; the other and weightier reason was, that I had never loved libraries. They oppress me with a painful sense of my mental inferiority; for all those tens of thousands of volumes, containing so much important but unappreciated matter, seem to have a kind of collective existence, and to look down on me, like a man with great, staring, owlish eyes, as an intruder on sacred ground — a barbarian, whose proper place is in the woods. It is a mere fancy, I know, but it distresses me, and I prefer not to put myself in the way of it. Once in a book I met with a scornful passage about people with “bodily constitutions like those of horses, and small brains,” which made me blush painfully; but in the very next passage the writer makes amends, saying that a man ought to think himself well off if, in the lottery of life, he draws the prize of a healthy stomach without a mind, that it is better than a fine intellect with a crazy stomach. I had drawn the healthy stomach — liver, lungs, and heart to match — and had never felt dissatisfied with my prize. Now, however, it seemed expedient that I should give some hours each day to reading; for so far my conversations and close intimacy with the people of the house had not dissipated the cloud of mystery in which their customs were hid; and by customs I here refer to those relating to courtship and matrimony only, for that was to me the main thing. The books I read, or dipped into, were all highly interesting, especially the odd volumes I looked at belonging to that long series on the Houses of the World, for these abounded in marvelous and entertaining matter. There were also histories of the house, and works on arts, agriculture, and various other subjects, but they were not what I wanted. After three or four hours spent in these fruitless researches, I would proceed to the Mother’s Room, where I was now permitted to enter freely every afternoon, and when there, to remain as long as I wished. It was so pleasant that I soon dropped into the custom of remaining until supper-time compelled me to leave it, Chastel invariably treating me now with a loving tenderness of manner which seemed strange when I recalled the extremely unfavorable impression I had made at our first interview.

It was never my nature to be indolent, or to love a quiet, dreamy existence: on the contrary, my fault had lain in the opposite direction, unlimited muscular exercise being as necessary to my well-being as fresh air and good food, and the rougher the exercise the better I liked it. But now, in this novel condition of languor, I experienced a wonderful restfulness both of body and mind, and in the Mother’s Room, resting as if some weariness of labor still clung to me, breathing and steeped in that fragrant, summer-like atmosphere, I had long intervals of perfect inactivity and silence, while I sat or reclined, not thinking but in a reverie, while many dreams of pleasures to come drifted in a vague, vaporous manner through my brain. The very character of the room — its delicate richness, the exquisitely harmonious disposition of colors and objects, and the illusions of nature produced on the mind — seemed to lend itself to this unaccustomed mood, and to confirm me in it.

The first impression produced was one of brightness: coming to it by way of the long, dim sculpture gallery was like passing out into the open air, and this effect was partly due to the white and crystal surfaces and the brilliancy of the colors where any color appeared. It was spacious and lofty, and the central arched or domed portion of the roof, which was of a light turquoise blue, rested on graceful columns of polished crystal. The doors were of amber-colored glass set in agate frames; but the windows, eight in number, formed the principal attraction. On the glass, hill and mountain scenery was depicted, the summits in some of them appearing beyond wide, barren plains, whitened with the noonday splendor and heat of midsummer, untempered by a cloud, the soaring peaks showing a pearly luster which seemed to remove them to an infinite distance. To look out, as it were, from the imitation shade of such an arbor, or pavilion, over those far-off, sun-lit expanses where the light appeared to dance and quiver as one gazed, was a never-failing delight. Such was its effect on me, combined with that of the mother’s new tender graciousness, resulting I knew not whether from compassion or affection, that I could have wished to remain a permanent invalid in her room.

Another cause of the mild kind of happiness I now experienced was the consciousness of a change in my own mental disposition, which made me less of an alien in the house; for I was now able, I imagined, to appreciate the beautiful character of my friends, their crystal purity of heart and the religion they professed. Far back in the old days I had heard, first and last, a great deal about sweetness and light and Philistines, and not quite knowing what this grand question was all about, and hearing from some of my friends that I was without the qualities they valued most, I thereafter proclaimed myself a Philistine, and was satisfied to have the controversy ended in that way, so far as it concerned me personally. Now, however, I was like one to whom some important thing has been told, who, scarcely hearing and straightway forgetting, goes about his affairs; but, lying awake at night in the silence of his chamber, recalls the unheeded words and perceives their full significance. My sojourn with this people — angelic women and mild-eyed men with downy, unrazored lips, so mild in manner yet in their arts “laying broad bases for eternity” — above all the invalid hours spent daily in the Mother’s Room, had taught me how unlovely a creature I had been. It would have been strange indeed if, in such an atmosphere, I had not absorbed a little sweetness and light into my system.

In this sweet refuge — this slumberous valley where I had been cast up by that swift black current that had borne me to an immeasurable distance on its bosom, and with such a change going on within me — I sometimes thought that a little more and I would touch that serene, enduring bliss which seemed to be the normal condition of my fellow-inmates. My passion for Yoletta now burned with a gentle flame, which did not consume, but only imparted an agreeable sense of warmth to the system. When she was there, sitting with me at her mother’s feet, sometimes so near that her dark, shining hair brushed against my cheek, and her fragrant breath came on my face; and when she caressed my hand, and gazed full at me with those dear eyes that had no shadow of regret or anxiety in them, but only unfathomable love, I could imagine that our union was already complete, that she was altogether and eternally mine.

I knew that this could not continue. Sometimes I could not prevent my thoughts from flying away from the present; then suddenly the complexion of my dream would change, darkening like a fair landscape when a cloud obscures the sun. Not forever would the demon of passion slumber and dream in my breast; with recovered strength it would wake again, and, ever increasing in power and ever baffled of its desire, would raise once more that black tempest of that past to overwhelm me. Other darker visions followed: I would see myself as in a magic glass, lying with upturned, ghastly face, with many people about me, hurrying to and fro, wringing their hands and weeping aloud with grief, shuddering at the abhorred sight of blood on their sacred, shining floors; or, worse still, I saw myself shivering in sordid rags and gaunt with long-lasting famine, a fugitive in some wintry, desolate land, far from all human companionship, the very image of Yoletta scorched by madness to formless ashes in my brain; and for all sensations, feelings, memories, thoughts, nothing left to me but a distorted likeness of the visible world, and a terrible unrest urging me, as with a whip of scorpions, ever on and on, to ford yet other black, icy torrents, and tear myself bleeding through yet other thorny thickets, and climb the ramparts of yet other gigantic, barren hills.

But these moments of terrible depression, new to my life, were infrequent, and seldom lasted long. Chastel was my good angel; a word, a touch from her hand, and the ugly spirits would vanish. She appeared to possess a mysterious faculty — perhaps only the keen insight and sympathy of a highly spiritualized nature — which informed her of much that was passing in my heart: if a shadow came there when she had no wish or strength to converse, she would make me draw close to her seat, and rest her hand on mine, and the shadow would pass from me.

I could not help reflecting often and wonderingly at this great change in her manner towards me. Her eyes dwelt lovingly on me, and her keenest suffering, and the unfortunate blundering expressions I frequently let fall, seemed equally powerless to wring one harsh or impatient word from her. I was not now only one among her children, privileged to come and sit at her feet, to have with them a share in her impartial affection; and remembering that I was a stranger in the house, and compared but poorly with the others, the undisguised preference she showed for me, and the wish to have me almost constantly with her, seemed a great mystery.

One afternoon, as I sat alone with her, she made the remark that my reading lessons had ceased.

“Oh yes, I can read perfectly well now,” I answered. “May I read to you from this book?” Saying which, I put my hand towards a volume lying on the couch at her side. It differed from the other books I had seen, in its smaller size and blue binding.

“No, not in this book,” she said, with a shade of annoyance in her voice, putting out her hand to prevent my taking it.

“Have I made another mistake?” I asked, withdrawing my hand. “I am very ignorant.”

“Yes, poor boy, you are very ignorant,” she returned, placing her hand on my forehead. “You must know that this is a mother’s book, and only a mother may read in it.”

“I am afraid,” I said, with a sigh, “that it will be a long time before I cease to offend you with such mistakes.”

“There is no occasion to say that, for you have not offended me, only you make me feel sorry. Every day when you are with me I try to teach you something, to smooth the path for you; but you must remember, my son, that others cannot feel towards you as I do, and it may come to pass that they will sometimes be offended with you, because their love is less than mine.”

“But why do you care so much for me?” I asked, emboldened by her words. “Once I thought that you only of all in the house would never love me: what has changed your feelings towards me, for I know that they have changed?” She looked at me, smiling a little sadly, but did not reply. “I think I should be happier for knowing,” I resumed, caressing her hand. “Will you not tell me?”

There was a strange trouble on her face as her eyes glanced away and then returned to mine again, while her lips quivered, as if with unspoken words. Then she answered: “No, I cannot tell you now. It would make you happy, perhaps, but the proper time has not yet arrived. You must be patient, and learn, for you have much to learn. It is my desire that you should know all those things concerning the family of which you are ignorant, and when I say all, I mean not only those suitable to one in your present condition, as a son of the house, but also those higher matters which belong to the heads of the house — to the father and mother.”

Then, casting away all caution, I answered: “It is precisely a knowledge of those greater matters concerning the family which I have been hungering after ever since I came into the house.”

“I know it,” she returned. “This hunger you speak of was partly the cause of your fever, and it is in you, keeping you feverish and feeble still; but for this, instead of being a prisoner here, you would now be abroad, feeling the sun and wind on your face.”

“And if you know that,” I pleaded, “why do you not now impart the knowledge that can make me whole? For surely, all those lesser matters — those things suitable for one in my condition to know — can be learned afterwards, in due time. For they are not of pressing importance, but the other is to me a matter of life and death, if you only knew it.”

“I know everything,” she returned quickly. But a cloud had come over her face at my concluding words, and a startled look into her eyes. “Life and death! do you know what you are saying?” she exclaimed, fixing her eyes on me with such intense earnestness in them that mine fell abashed before their gaze. Then, after a while, she drew my head down against her knees, and spoke with a strange tenderness. “Do you then find it so hard to exercise a little patience, my son, that you do not acquiesce in what I say to you, and fear to trust your future in my hands? My time is short for all that I have to do, yet I also must be patient and wait, although for me it is hardest. For now your coming, which I did not regard at first, seeing in you only a pilgrim like others — one who through accidents of travel had been cast away and left homeless in the world, until we found and gave you shelter — now, it has brought something new into my life: and if this fresh hope, which is only an old, perished hope born again, ever finds fulfillment, then death will lose much of its bitterness. But there are difficulties in the way which only time, and the energy of a soul that centers all its faculties in one desire, one enterprise, can overcome. And the chief difficulty I find is in yourself — in that strange, untoward disposition so often revealed in your conversation, which you have shown even now; for to be thus questioned and pressed, and to have my judgment doubted, would have greatly offended me in another. Remember this, and do not abuse the privilege you enjoy: remember that you must greatly change before I can share with you the secrets of my heart that concern you. And bear in mind, my son, that I am not rebuking you for a want of knowledge; for I know that for many deficiencies you are not blameworthy. I know, for instance, that nature has denied to you that melodious and flexible voice in which it is our custom every day to render homage to the Father, to express all the sacred feelings of our hearts, all our love for each other, the joy we have in life, and even our griefs and sorrows. For grief is like a dark, oppressive cloud, until from lip and hand it breaks in the rain of melody, and we are lightened, so that even the things that are painful give to life a new and chastened glory. And as with music, so with all other arts. There is a twofold pleasure in contemplating our Father’s works: in the first and lower kind you share with us; but the second and more noble, springing from the first, is ours through that faculty by means of which the beauty and harmony of the visible world become transmuted in the soul, which is like a pencil of glass receiving the white sunbeam into itself, and changing it to red, green, and violet-colored light: thus nature transmutes itself in our minds, and is expressed in art. But in you this second faculty is wanting, else you would not willingly forego so great a pleasure as its exercise affords, and love nature like one that loves his fellow-man, but has no words to express so sweet a feeling. For the happiness of love with sympathy, when made known and returned, is increased an hundredfold; and in all artistic work we commune not with blind, irrational nature, but with the unseen spirit which is in nature, inspiring our hearts, returning love for love, and rewarding our labor with enduring bliss. Therefore it is your misfortune, not your fault, that you are deprived of this supreme solace and happiness.”

To this speech, which had a depressing effect on me, I answered sadly: “Every day I feel my deficiencies more keenly, and wish more ardently to lessen the great distance between us; but now — sweet mother, forgive me for saying it! — your words almost make me despond.”

“And yet, my son, I have spoken only to encourage you. I know your limitations, and expect nothing beyond your powers; nor do your errors greatly trouble me, believing as I do that in time you will be able to dismiss them from your mind. But the temper of your mind must be changed to be worthy of the happiness I have designed for you. Patience must chasten that reckless spirit in you; for feverish diligence, alternating with indifference or despondence, there must be unremitting effort; and for that unsteady flame of hope, which burns so brightly in the morning and in the evening sings so low, there must be a bright, unwavering, and rational hope. It would be strange indeed if after this you were cast down; and, lest you forget anything, I will say again that only by giving you enduring happiness and the desire of your heart can my one hope be fulfilled. Consider how much I say to you in these words; it saddens me to think that so much was necessary. And do not think hardly of me, my son, for wishing to keep you a little longer in this prison with me: for in a little while your weakness will pass away like a morning cloud. But for me there shall come no change, since I must remain day and night here with the shadow of death; and when I am taken forth, and the sunshine falls once more on my face, I shall not feel it, and shall not see it, and I shall lie forgotten when you are in the midst of your happy years.”

Her words smote on my heart with a keen pain of compassion. “Do not say that you will be forgotten!” I exclaimed passionately; “for should you be taken away, I shall still love and worship your memory, as I worship you now when you are alive.”

She caressed my hand, but did not speak; and when I looked up, her worn face had dropped on the pillow, and her eyes were closed. “I am tired — tired,” she murmured. “Stay with me a little longer, but leave me if I sleep.”

And in a little while she slept. The light was on her face, resting on the purple pillow, and with the soulful eyes closed, and the lips that had no red color of life in them also closed and motionless, it was like a face carved in ivory of one who had suffered like Isarte in the house and perished long generations ago; and the abundant dark, lusterless hair that framed it, looked dead too, and of the color of wrought iron.

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