A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 18

Chastel’s words sank deep in my heart — deeper than words had ever sunk before into that somewhat unpromising soil; and although she had purposely left me in the dark with regard to many important matters, I now resolved to win her esteem, and bind her yet more closely to me by correcting those faults in my character she had pointed out with so much tenderness.

Alas! the very next day was destined to bring me a sore trouble. On entering the breakfast-room I became aware that a shadow had fallen on the house. Among his silent people the father sat with gray, haggard face and troubled eyes; then Yoletta entered, her sweet face looking paler than when I had first seen it after her long punishment, while under her heavy, drooping eyelids her skin was stained with that mournful purple which tells of a long vigil and a heart oppressed with anxiety. I heard with profound concern that Chastel’s malady had suddenly become aggravated; that she had passed the night in the greatest suffering. What would become of me, and of all those bright dreams of happiness, if she were to die? was my first idea. But at the same time I had the grace to feel ashamed of that selfish thought. Nevertheless, I could not shake off the gloom it had produced in me, and, too distressed in mind to work or read, I repaired to the Mother’s Room, to be as near as possible to the sufferer on whose recovery so much now depended. How lonely and desolate it seemed there, now that she was absent! Those mountain landscapes, glowing with the white radiance of mimic sunshine, still made perpetual summer; yet there seemed to be a wintry chill and death-like atmosphere which struck to the heart, and made me shiver with cold. The day dragged slowly to its close, and no rest came to the sufferer, nor sign of improvement to relieve our anxiety. Until past midnight I remained at my post, then retired for three or four miserable, anxious hours, only to return once more when it was scarcely light. Chastel’s condition was still unchanged, or, if there had been any change, it was for the worse, for she had not slept. Again I remained, a prey to desponding thoughts, all day in the room; but towards evening Yoletta came to take me to her mother. The summons so terrified me that for some moments I sat trembling and unable to articulate a word; for I could not but think that Chastel’s end was approaching. Yoletta, however, divining the cause of my agitation, explained that her mother could not sleep for torturing pains in her head, and wished me to place my hand on her forehead, to try whether that would cause any relief. This seemed to me a not very promising remedy; but she told me that on former occasions they had often succeeded in procuring her ease by placing a hand on her forehead, and that having failed now, Chastel had desired them to call me to her to try my hand. I rose, and for the first time entered that sacred chamber, where Chastel was lying on a low bed placed on a slightly raised platform in the center of the floor. In the dim light her face looked white as the pillow on which it rested, her forehead contracted with sharp pain, while low moans came at short intervals from her twitching lips; but her wide-open eyes were fixed on my face from the moment I entered the room, and to me they seemed to express mental anguish rather than physical suffering. At the head of the bed sat the father, holding her hand in his; but when I entered he rose and made way for me, retiring to the foot of the bed, where two of the women were seated. I knelt beside the bed, and Yoletta raised and tenderly placed my right hand on the mother’s forehead, and, after whispering to me to let it rest very gently there, she also withdrew a few paces.

Chastel did not speak, but for some minutes continued her low, piteous moanings, only her eyes remained fixed on my face; and at last, becoming uneasy at her scrutiny, I said in a whisper: “Dearest mother, do you wish to say anything to me?”

“Yes, come nearer,” she replied; and when I had bent my cheek close to her face, she continued: “Do not fear, my son; I shall not die. I cannot die until that of which I have spoken to you has been accomplished.”

I rejoiced at her words, yet, at the same time, they gave me pain; for it seemed as though she knew how much my heart had been troubled by that ignoble fear.

“Dear mother, may I say something?” I asked, wishing to tell her of my resolutions.

“Not now; I know what you wish to say,” she returned. “Be patient and hopeful always, and fear nothing, even though we should be long divided; for it will be many days before I can leave this room to speak with you again.”

So softly had she whispered, that the others who stood so near were not aware that she had spoken at all.

After this brief colloquy she closed her eyes, but for some time the low moans of pain continued. Gradually they sank lower, and became less and less frequent, while the lines of pain faded out of her white, death-like face. And at length Yoletta, stealing softly to my side, whispered, “She is sleeping,” and withdrawing my hand, led me away.

When we were again in the Mother’s Room she threw her arms about my neck and burst into a tempest of tears.

“Dearest Yoletta, be comforted,” I said, pressing her to my breast; “she will not die.”

“Oh, Smith, how do you know?” she returned quickly, looking up with her eyes still shining with large drops.

Then, of Chastel’s whispered words to me, I repeated those four, “I shall not die,” but nothing more; they were however, a great relief to her, and her sweet, sorrowful face brightened like a drooping flower after rain.

“Ah, she knew, then, that the touch of your hand would cause sleep, that sleep would save her,” she said, smiling up at me.

“And you, my darling, how long is it since you closed those sweet eyelids that seem so heavy?”

“Not since I slept three nights ago.”

“Will you sit by me here, resting your head on me, and sleep a little now?”

“Not there!” she cried quickly. “Not on the mother’s couch. But if you will sit here, it will be pleasant if I can sleep for a little while, resting on you.”

I placed myself on the low seat she led me to, and then, when she had coiled herself up on the cushions, with her arms still round my neck, and her head resting on my bosom, she breathed a long happy sigh, and dropped like a tired child to sleep.

How perfect my happiness would have been then, with Yoletta in my arms, clasping her weary little ministering hands in mine, and tenderly kissing her dark, shining hair, but for the fear that some person might come there to notice and disturb me. And pretty soon I was startled to see the father himself coming from Chastel’s chamber to us. Catching sight of me he paused, smiling, then advanced, and deliberately sat down by my side.

“This one is sleeping also,” he said cheerfully, touching the girl’s hair with his hand. “But you need not fear, Smith; I think we shall be able to talk very well without waking her.”

I had feared something quite different, if he had only known it, and felt considerably relieved by his words; nevertheless, I was not over-pleased at the prospect of a conversation just then, and should have preferred being left alone with my precious burden.

“My son,” he continued, placing a hand on my shoulder, “I sometimes recall, not without a smile, the effect your first appearance produced on us, when we were startled at your somewhat grotesque pilgrim costume. Your attempts at singing, and ignorance of art generally, also impressed me unfavorably, and gave me some concern when I thought about the future — that is, your future; for it seemed to me that you had but slender foundations whereon to build a happy life. These doubts, however, no longer trouble me; for on several occasions you have shown us that you possess abundantly that richest of all gifts and safest guide to happiness — the capacity for deep affection. To this spirit of love in you — this summer of the heart which causes it to blossom with beautiful thoughts and deeds — I attribute your success just now, when the contact of your hand produced the long-desired, refreshing slumber so necessary to the mother at this stage of her malady. I know that this is a mysterious thing; and it is commonly said that in such cases relief is caused by an emanation from the brain through the fingers. Doubtless this is so; and I also choose to believe that only a powerful spirit of love in the heart can rightly direct this subtle energy, that where such a spirit is absent the desired effect cannot be produced.”

“I do not know,” I replied. “Great as my love and devotion is, I cannot suppose it to equal, much less to surpass, that of others who yet failed on this occasion to give relief.”

“Yes, yes; only that is looking merely at the surface of the matter, and leaving out of sight the unfathomable mysteries of a being compounded of flesh and spirit. There are among our best instruments peculiar to this house, especially those used chiefly in our harvest music, some of such finely-tempered materials, and of so delicate a construction, that the person wishing to perform on them must not only be inspired with the melodious passion, but the entire system — body and soul — must be in the proper mood, the flesh itself elevated into harmony with the exalted spirit, else he will fail to elicit the tones or to give the expression desired. This is a rough and a poor simile, when we consider how wonderful an instrument a human being is, with the body that burns with thought, and the spirit that quivers and cries with pain, and when we think how its innumerable, complex chords may be injured and untuned by suffering. The will may be ours, but something, we know not what, interposes to defeat our best efforts. That you have succeeded in producing so blessed a result, after we had failed, has served to deepen and widen in our hearts the love we already felt for you; for how much more precious is this melody of repose, this sweet interval of relief from cruel pain the mother now experiences, than many melodies from clear voices and trained hands.”

In my secret heart I believed that he was taking much too lofty a view of the matter; but I had no desire to argue against so flattering a delusion, if it were one, and only wished that I could share it with him.

“She is sleeping still,” he said presently, “perhaps without pain, like Yoletta here, and her sleep will now probably last for some hours.”

“I pray Heaven that she may wake refreshed and free from pain,” I remarked.

He seemed surprised at my words, and looked searchingly into my face. “My son,” he said, “it grieves me, at a moment like the present, to have to point out a great error to you; but it is an error hurtful to yourself and painful to those who see it, and if I were to pass it over in silence, or put off speaking of it to another time, I should not be fulfilling the part of a loving father towards you.”

Surprised at this speech, I begged him to tell me what I had said that was wrong.

“Do you not then know that it is unlawful to entertain such a thought as you have expressed?” he said. “In moments of supreme pain or bitterness or peril we sometimes so far forget ourselves as to cry out to Heaven to save us or to give us ease; but to make any such petition when we are in the full possession of our faculties is unworthy of a reasonable being, and an offense to the Father: for we pray to each other, and are moved by such prayers, remembering that we are fallible, and often err through haste and forgetfulness and imperfect knowledge. But he who freely gave us life and reason and all good gifts, needs not that we should remind him of anything; therefore to ask him to give us the thing we desire is to make him like ourselves, and charge him with an oversight; or worse, we attribute weakness and irresolution to him, since the petitioner thinks my importunity to incline the balance in his favor.”

I was about to reply that I had always considered prayer to be an essential part of religion, and not of my form of religion only, but of all religions all over the world. Luckily I remembered in time that he probably knew more about matters “all over the world” than I did, and so held my tongue.

“Have you any doubts on the subject?” he asked, after a while.

“I must confess that I still have some doubts,” I replied. “I believe that our Creator and Father desires the happiness of all his creatures and takes no pleasure in seeing us miserable; for it would be impossible not to believe it, seeing how greatly happiness overbalances misery in the world. But he does not come to us in visible form to tell us in an audible voice that to cry out to him in sore pain and distress is unlawful. How, then, do we know this thing? For a child cries to its mother, and a fledgling in the nest to its parent bird; and he is infinitely more to us than parent to child — infinitely stronger to help, and knows our griefs as no fellow-mortal can know them. May we not, then, believe, without hurt to our souls, that the cry of one of his children in affliction may reach him; that in his compassion, and by means of his sovereign power over nature, he may give ease to the racked body, and peace and joy to the desolate mind?”

“You ask me, How, then, do we know this thing? and you answer the question yourself, yet fail to perceive that you answer it, when you say that although he does not come in a visible form to teach us this thing and that thing, yet we know that he desires our happiness; and to this you might have added a thousand or ten thousand other things which we know. If the reason he gave us to start with makes it unnecessary that he should come to tell us in an audible voice that he desires our happiness, it must also surely suffice to tell us which are lawful and which unlawful of all the thoughts continually rising in our hearts. That any one should question so evident and universally accepted a truth, the foundation of all religion, seems very surprising to me. If it had consisted with his plan to make these delicate mortal bodies capable of every agreeable sensation in the highest degree, yet not liable to accident, and not subject to misery and pain, he would surely have done this for all of us. But reason and nature show us that such an end did not consist with his plan; therefore to ask him to suspend the operations of nature for the benefit of any individual sufferer, however poignant and unmerited the sufferings may be, is to shut our eyes to the only light he has given us. All our highest and sweetest feelings unite with reason to tell us with one voice that he loves us; and our knowledge of nature shows us plainly enough that he also loves all the creatures inferior to man. To us he has given reason for a guide, and for the guidance and protection of the lower kinds he has given instinct: and though they do not know him, it would make us doubt his impartial love for all his creatures, if we, by making use of our reason, higher knowledge, and articulate speech, were able to call down benefits on ourselves, and avert pain and disaster, while the dumb, irrational brutes suffered in silence — the languishing deer that leaves the herd with a festering thorn in its foot; the passage bird blown from its course to perish miserably far out at sea.”

His conclusions were perhaps more logical than mine; nevertheless, although I could not argue the matter any more with him, I was not yet prepared to abandon this last cherished shred of old beliefs, although perhaps not cherished for its intrinsic worth, but rather because it had been given to me by a sweet woman whose memory was sacred to my heart — my mother before Chastel.

Fortunately, it was not necessary to continue the discussion any longer, for at this juncture one of the watchers from the sick-room came to report that the mother was still sleeping peacefully, hearing which, the father rose to seek a little needful rest in an adjoining room. Before going, however, he proposed, with mistaken kindness, to relieve me of my burden, and place the girl without waking her on a couch. But I would not consent to have her disturbed; and finally, to my great delight, they left her still in my arms, the father warmly pressing my hand, and advising me to reflect well on his words concerning prayer.

It was growing dark now, and how welcome that obscurity seemed, while with no one nigh to see or hear I kissed her soft tresses a hundred times, and murmured a hundred endearing words in her sleeping ears.

Her waking, which gave me a pang at first, afforded me in the end a still greater bliss.

“Oh, how dark it is — where am I?” she exclaimed, starting suddenly from repose.

“With me, sweetest,” I said. “Do you not remember going to sleep on my breast?”

“Yes; but oh, why did you not wake me sooner? My mother — my mother — ”

“She is still quietly sleeping, dearest. Ah, I wish you also had continued sleeping! It was such a delight to have you in my arms.”

“My love!” she said, laying her soft cheek against mine. “How sweet it was to fall asleep in your arms! When we came in here I could scarcely say a word, for my heart was too full for speech; and now I have a hundred things to say. After all, I should only finish by giving you a kiss, which is more eloquent than speech; so I shall kiss you at once, and save myself the trouble of talking so much.”

“Say one of the hundred things, Yoletta.”

“Oh, Smith, before this evening I did not think that I could love you more; and sometimes, when I recalled what I once said to you — on the hill, do you remember? — it seemed to me that I already loved you a little too much. But now I am convinced that I was mistaken, for a thousand offenses could not alienate my heart, which is all yours forever.”

“Mine for ever, without a doubt, darling?” I murmured, holding her against my breast; and in my rapture almost forgetting that this angelic affection she lavished on me would not long satisfy my heart.

“Yes, for ever, for you shall never, never leave the house. Your pilgrimage, from which you derived so little benefit, is over now. And if you ever attempt to go forth again to find out new wonders in the world, I shall clasp you round with my arms, as I do now, and keep you prisoner against your will; and if you say ‘Farewell’ a hundred times to me, I shall blot out that sad word every time with my lips, and put a better one in its place, until my word conquers yours.”

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