A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 19

Although deprived for the present of all intercourse with Chastel and Yoletta, now in constant attendance on her mother, I ought to have been happy, for all things seemed conspiring to make my life precious to me. Nevertheless, I was far from happy; and, having heard so much said about reason in my late conversations with the father and mother of the house, I began to pay an unusual amount of attention to this faculty in me, in order to discover by its aid the secret of the sadness which continued at all times during this period to oppress my heart. I only discovered, what others have discovered before me, that the practice of introspection has a corrosive effect on the mind, which only serves to aggravate the malady it is intended to cure. During those restful days in the Mother’s Room, when I had sat with Chastel, this spirit of melancholy had been with me; but the mother’s hallowing presence had given something of a divine color to it, my passions had slumbered, and, except at rare intervals, I had thought of sorrow as of something at an immeasurable distance from me. Then to my spirit

The gushing of the wave
Far, far away, did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores
”;

and so sweet had seemed that pause, that I had hoped and prayed for its continuance. No sooner was I separated from her than the charm dissolved, and all my thoughts, like evening clouds that appear luminous and rich in color until the sun has set, began to be darkened with a mysterious gloom. Strive how I might, I was unable to compose my mind to that serene, trustful temper she had desired to see in me, and without which there could be no blissful futurity. After all the admonitions and the comforting assurances I had received, and in spite of reason and all it could say to me, each night I went to my bed with a heavy heart; and each morning when I woke, there, by my pillow, waited that sad phantom, to go with me where I went, to remind me at every pause of an implacable Fate, who held my future in its hands, who was mightier than Chastel, and would shatter all her schemes for my happiness like vessels of brittle glass.

Several days — probably about fifteen, for I did not count them — had passed since I had been admitted into the mother’s sleeping-room, when there came an exceedingly lovely day, which seemed to bring to me a pleasant sensation of returning health, and made me long to escape from morbid dreams and vain cravings. Why should I sit at home and mope, I thought; it was better to be active: sun and wind were full of healing. Such a day was in truth one of those captain jewels “that seldom placed are” among the blusterous days of late autumn, with winter already present to speed its parting. For a long time the sky had been overcast with multitudes and endless hurrying processions of wild-looking clouds — torn, wind-chased fugitives, of every mournful shade of color, from palest gray to slatey-black; and storms of rain had been frequent, impetuous, and suddenly intermitted, or passing away phantom-like towards the misty hills, there to lose themselves among other phantoms, ever wandering sorrowfully in that vast, shadowy borderland where earth and heaven mingled; and gusts of wind which, as they roared by over a thousand straining trees and passed off with hoarse, volleying sounds, seemed to mimic the echoing thunder. And the leaves — the millions and myriads of sere, cast-off leaves, heaped ankle-deep under the desolate giants of the wood, and everywhere, in the hollows of the earth, lying silent and motionless, as became dead, fallen things — suddenly catching a mock fantastic life from the wind, how they would all be up and stirring, every leaf with a hiss like a viper, racing, many thousands at a time, over the barren spaces, all hurriedly talking together in their dead-leaf language! until, smitten with a mightier gust, they would rise in flight on flight, in storms and stupendous, eddying columns, whirled up to the clouds, to fall to the earth again in showers, and freckle the grass for roods around. Then for a moment, far off in heavens, there would be a rift, or a thinning of the clouds, and the sunbeams, striking like lightning through their ranks, would illumine the pale blue mist, the slanting rain, the gaunt black boles and branches, glittering with wet, casting a momentary glory over the ocean-like tumult of nature.

In the condition I was in, with a relaxed body and dejected mind, this tempestuous period, which would have only afforded fresh delight to a person in perfect health, had no charm for my spirit; but, on the contrary, it only served to intensify my gloom. And yet day after day it drew me forth, although in my weakness I shivered in the rough gale, and shrank from the touch of the big cold drops the clouds flung down on me. It fascinated me, like the sight of armies contending in battle, or of some tragic action from which the spectator cannot withdraw his gaze. For I had become infected with strange fancies, so persistent and somber that they were like superstitions. It seemed to me that not I but nature had changed, that the familiar light had passed like a kindly expression from her countenance, which was now charged with an awful menacing gloom that frightened my soul. Sometimes, when straying alone, like an unquiet ghost among the leafless trees, when a deeper shadow swept over the earth, I would pause, pale with apprehension, listening to the many dirge-like sounds of the forest, ever prophesying evil, until in my trepidation I would start and tremble, and look to this side and to that, as if considering which way to fly from some unimaginable calamity coming, I knew not from where, to wreck my life for ever.

This bright day was better suited to my complaint. The sun shone as in spring; not a stain appeared on the crystal vault of heaven; everywhere the unfailing grass gave rest to the eye with its verdure; and a light wind blew fresh and bracing in my face, making my pulses beat faster, although feebly still. Remembering my happy wood-cutting days, before my trouble had come to me, I got my ax and started to walk to the wood; then seeing Yoletta watching my departure from the terrace, I waved my hand to her. Before I had gone far, however, she came running to me, full of anxiety, to warn me that I was not yet strong enough for such work. I assured her that I had no intention of working hard and tiring myself, then continued my walk, while she returned to attend on her mother.

The day was so bright with sunshine that it inspired me with a kind of passing gladness, and I began to hum snatches of old half-remembered songs. They were songs of departing summer, tinged with melancholy, and suggested other verses not meant for singing, which I began repeating.

“Rich flowers have perished on the silent earth —
Blossoms of valley and of wood that gave
A fragrance to the winds.”

And again:

“The blithesome birds have sought a sunnier shore;
They lingered till the cold cold winds went in
And withered their green homes.”

And these also were fragments, breathing only of sadness, which made me resolve to dismiss poetry from my mind and think of nothing at all. I tried to interest myself in a flight of buzzard-like hawks, soaring in wide circles at an immense height above me. Gazing up into that far blue vault, under which they moved so serenely, and which seemed so infinite, I remembered how often in former days, when gazing up into such a sky, I had breathed a prayer to the Unseen Spirit; but now I recalled the words the father of the house had spoken to me, and the prayer died unformed in my heart, and a strange feeling of orphanhood saddened me, and brought my eyes to earth again.

Half-way to the wood, on an open reach where there were no trees or bushes, I came on a great company of storks, half a thousand of them at least, apparently resting on their travels, for they were all standing motionless, with necks drawn in, as if dozing. They were very stately, handsome birds, clear gray in color, with a black collar on the neck, and red beak and legs. My approach did not disturb them until I was within twenty yards of the nearest — for they were scattered over an acre of ground; then they rose with a loud, rustling noise of wings, only to settle again at a short distance off.

Incredible numbers of birds, chiefly waterfowl, had appeared in the neighborhood since the beginning of the wet, boisterous weather; the river too was filled with these new visitors, and I was told that most of them were passengers driven from distant northern regions, which they made their summer home, and were now flying south in search of a warmer climate.

All this movement in the feathered world had, during my troubled days, brought me as little pleasure as the other changes going on about me: those winged armies ever hurrying by in broken detachments, wailing and clanging by day and by night in the clouds, white with their own terror, or black-plumed like messengers of doom, to my distempered fancy only added a fresh element of fear to a nature racked with disorders, and full of tremendous signs and omens.

The interest with which I now remarked these pilgrim storks seemed to me a pleasant symptom of a return to a saner state of mind, and before continuing my walk I wished that Yoletta had been there with me to see them and tell me their history; for she was curious about such matters, and had a most wonderful affection for the whole feathered race. She had her favorites among the birds at different seasons, and the kind she most esteemed now had been arriving for over a month, their numbers increasing day by day until the woods and fields were alive with their flocks.

This kind was named the cloud-bird, on account of its starling-like habit of wheeling about over its feeding-ground, the birds throwing themselves into masses, then scattering and gathering again many times, so that when viewed at a distance a large flock had the appearance of a cloud, growing dark and thin alternately, and continually changing its form. It was somewhat larger than a starling, with a freer flight, and had a richer plumage, its color being deep glossy blue, or blue-black, and underneath bright chestnut. When close at hand and in the bright sunshine, the aerial gambols of a flock were beautiful to witness, as the birds wheeled about and displayed in turn, as if moved by one impulse, first the rich blue, then the bright chestnut surfaces to the eye. The charming effect was increased by the bell-like, chirping notes they all uttered together, and as they swept round or doubled in the air at intervals came these tempests of melodious sound — a most perfect expression of wild jubilant bird-life. Yoletta, discoursing in the most delightful way about her loved cloud-birds, had told me that they spent the summer season in great solitary marshes, where they built their nests in the rushes; but with cold weather they flew abroad, and at such times seemed always to prefer the neighborhood of man, remaining in great flocks near the house until the next spring. On this bright sunny morning I was amazed at the multitudes I saw during my walk: yet it was not strange that birds were so abundant, considering that there were no longer any savages on the earth, with nothing to amuse their vacant minds except killing the feathered creatures with their bows and arrows, and no innumerable company of squaws clamorous for trophies — unchristian women of the woods with painted faces, insolence in their eyes, and for ornaments the feathered skins torn from slain birds on their heads.

When I at length arrived at the wood, I went to that spot where I had felled the large tree on the occasion of my last and disastrous visit, and where Yoletta, newly released from confinement, had found me. There lay the rough-barked giant exactly as I had left it, and once more I began to hack at the large branches; but my feeble strokes seemed to make little impression, and becoming tired in a very short time, I concluded that I was not yet equal to such work, and sat myself down to rest. I remembered how, when sitting on that very spot, I had heard a slight rustling of the withered leaves, and looking up beheld Yoletta coming swiftly towards me with outstretched arms, and her face shining with joy. Perhaps she would come again to me to-day: yes, she would surely come when I wished for her so much; for she had followed me out to try to dissuade me from going to the woods, and would be anxiously thinking about me; and she could spare an hour from the sick-room now. The trees and bushes would prevent me from seeing her approach, but I should hear her, as I had heard her before. I sat motionless, scarcely breathing, straining my sense to catch the first faint sound of her light, swift step; and every time a small bird, hopping along the ground, rustled a withered leaf, I started up to greet and embrace her. But she did not come; and at last, sick at heart with hope deferred, I covered my face with my hands, and, weak with misery, cried like a disappointed child.

Presently something touched me, and, removing my hands from my face, I saw that great silver-gray dog which had come to Yoletta’s call when I fainted, sitting before me with his chin resting on my knees. No doubt he remembered that last wood-cutting day very well, and had come to take care of me now.

“Welcome, dear old friend!” said I; and in my craving for sympathy of some kind I put my arms over him, and pressed my face against his. Then I sat up again, and gazed into the pair of clear brown eyes watching my face so gravely.

“Look here, old fellow,” said I, talking audibly to him for want of something in human shape to address, “you didn’t lick my face just now when you might have done so with impunity; and when I speak to you, you don’t wag that beautiful bushy tail which serves you for ornament. This reminds me that you are not like the dogs I used to know — the dogs that talked with their tails, caressed with their tongues, and were never over-clean or well-behaved. Where are they now — collies, rat-worrying terriers, hounds, spaniels, pointers, retrievers — dogs rough and dogs smooth; big brute boarhounds, St. Bernard’s, mastiffs, nearly or quite as big as you are, but not so slender, silky-haired, and sharp-nosed, and without your refined expression of keenness without cunning. And after these canine noblemen of the old regime, whither has vanished the countless rabble of mongrels, curs, and pariah dogs; and last of all — being more degenerate — the corpulent, blear-eyed, wheezy pet dogs of a hundred breeds? They are all dead, no doubt: they have been dead so long that I daresay nature extracted all the valuable salts that were contained in their flesh and bones thousands of years ago, and used it for better things — raindrops, froth of the sea, flowers and fruit, and blades of grass. Yet there was not a beast in all that crew of which its master or mistress was not ready to affirm that it could do everything but talk! No one says that of you, my gentle guardian; for dog-worship, with all the ten thousand fungoid cults that sprang up and flourished exceedingly in the muddy marsh of man’s intellect, has withered quite away, and left no seed. Yet in intelligence you are, I fancy, somewhat ahead of your far-off progenitors: long use has also given you something like a conscience. You are a good, sensible beast, that’s all. You love and serve your master, according to your lights; night and day, you, with your fellows, guard his flocks and herds, his house and fields. Into his sacred house, however, you do not intrude your comely countenance, knowing your place.”

“What, then, happened to earth, and how long did that undreaming slumber last from which I woke to find things so altered? I do not know, nor does it matter very much. I only know that there has been a sort of mighty Savonarola bonfire, in which most of the things once valued have been consumed to ashes — politics, religions, systems of philosophy, isms and ologies of all descriptions; schools, churches, prisons, poorhouses; stimulants and tobacco; kings and parliaments; cannon with its hostile roar, and pianos that thundered peacefully; history, the press, vice, political economy, money, and a million things more — all consumed like so much worthless hay and stubble. This being so, why am I not overwhelmed at the thought of it? In that feverish, full age — so full, and yet, my God, how empty! — in the wilderness of every man’s soul, was not a voice heard crying out, prophesying the end? I know that a thought sometimes came to me, passing through my brain like lightning through the foliage of a tree; and in the quick, blighting fire of that intolerable thought, all hopes, beliefs, dreams, and schemes seemed instantaneously to shrivel up and turn to ashes, and drop from me, and leave me naked and desolate. Sometimes it came when I read a book of philosophy; or listened on a still, hot Sunday to a dull preacher — they were mostly dull — prosing away to a sleepy, fashionable congregation about Daniel in the lions’ den, or some other equally remote matter; or when I walked in crowded thoroughfares; or when I heard some great politician out of office — out in the cold, like a miserable working-man with no work to do — hurling anathemas at an iniquitous government; and sometimes also when I lay awake in the silent watches of the night. A little while, the thought said, and all this will be no more; for we have not found out the secret of happiness, and all our toil and effort is misdirected; and those who are seeking for a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, and those who are going about doing good, are alike wasting their lives; and on all our hopes, beliefs, dreams, theories, and enthusiasms, ‘Passing away’ is written plainly as the Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin seen by Belshazzar on the wall of his palace in Babylon.”

“That withering thought never comes to me now. ‘Passing away’ is not written on the earth, which is still God’s green footstool; the grass was not greener nor the flowers sweeter when man was first made out of clay, and the breath of life breathed into his nostrils. And the human family and race — outcome of all that dead, unimaginable past — this also appears to have the stamp of everlastingness on it; and in its tranquil power and majesty resembles some vast mountain that lifts its head above the clouds, and has its granite roots deep down in the world’s center. A feeling of awe is in me when I gaze on it; but it is vain to ask myself now whether the vanished past, with its manifold troubles and transitory delights, was preferable to this unchanging peaceful present. I care for nothing but Yoletta; and if the old world was consumed to ashes that she might be created, I am pleased that it was so consumed; for nobler than all perished hopes and ambitions is the hope that I may one day wear that bright, consummate flower on my bosom.”

“I have only one trouble now — a wolf that follows me everywhere, always threatening to rend me to pieces with its black jaws. Not you, old friend — a great, gaunt, man-eating, metaphorical wolf, far more terrible than that beast of the ancients which came to the poor man’s door. In the darkness its eyes, glowing like coals, are ever watching me, and even in the bright daylight its shadowy form is ever near me, stealing from bush to bush, or from room to room, always dogging my footsteps. Will it ever vanish, like a mere phantom — a wolf of the brain — or will it come nearer and more near, to spring upon and rend me at the last? If they could only clothe my mind as they have my body, to make me like themselves with no canker at my heart, ever contented and calmly glad! But nothing comes from taking thought. I am sick of thought — I hate it! Away with it! I shall go and look for Yoletta, since she does not come to me. Good-by, old friend, you have been well-behaved and listened with considerable patience to a long discourse. It will benefit you about as much as I have been benefited by many a lecture and many a sermon I was compelled to listen to in the old vanished days.”

Bestowing another caress on him I got up and went back to the house, thinking sadly as I walked that the bright weather had not yet greatly improved my spirits.

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