A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 2

The thrilling, pathetic tone in which these words were uttered affected me not a little; and when the ceremony was over I continued staring vacantly at the speaker, ignorant of the fact that the beautiful young girl had her wide-open, startled eyes fixed on the bush which, I vainly imagined, concealed me from view.

All at once she cried out: “Oh, father, look there! Who is that strange-looking man watching us from behind the bushes?”

They all turned, and then I felt that fourteen or fifteen pairs of very keen eyes were on me, seeing me very plainly indeed, for in my curiosity and excitement I had come out from the thicker bushes to place myself behind a ragged, almost leafless shrub, which afforded the merest apology for a shelter. Putting a bold face on the matter, although I did not feel very easy, I came out and advanced to them, removing my battered old hat on the way, and bowing repeatedly to the assembled company. My courteous salutation was not returned; but all, with increasing astonishment pictured on their faces, continued staring at me as if they were looking on some grotesque apparition. Thinking it best to give an account of myself at once, and to apologize for intruding on their mysteries, I addressed myself to the old man:

“I really beg your pardon,” I said, “for having disturbed you at such an inconvenient time, and while you are engaged in these — these solemn rites; but I assure you, sir, it has been quite accidental. I happened to be walking here when I saw you coming, and thought it best to step out of the way until — well, until the funeral was over. The fact is, I met with a serious accident in the mountains over there. I fell down into a ravine, and a great heap of earth and stones fell on and stunned me, and I do not know how long I lay there before I recovered my senses. I daresay I am trespassing, but I am a perfect stranger here, and quite lost, and — and perhaps a little confused after my fall, and perhaps you will kindly tell me where to go to get some refreshment, and find out where I am.”

“Your story is a very strange one,” said the old man in reply, after a pause of considerable duration. “That you are a perfect stranger in this place is evident from your appearance, your uncouth dress, and your thick speech.”

His words made me blush hotly, although I should not have minded his very personal remarks much if that beautiful girl had not been standing there listening to everything. My uncouth garments, by the way, were made by a fashionable West End tailor, and fitted me perfectly, although just now they were, of course, very dirty. It was also a surprise to hear that I had a thick speech, since I had always been considered a remarkably clear speaker and good singer, and had frequently both sung and recited in public, at amateur entertainments.

After a distressing interval of silence, during which they all continued regarding me with unabated curiosity, the old gentleman condescended to address me again and asked me my name and country.

“My country,” said I, with the natural pride of a Briton, “is England, and my name is Smith.”

“No such country is known to me,” he returned; “nor have I ever heard such a name as yours.”

I was rather taken aback at his words, and yet did not just then by any means realize their full import. I was thinking only about my name; for without having penetrated into any perfectly savage country, I had been about the world a great deal for a young man, visiting the Colonies, India, Yokohama, and other distant places, and I had never yet been told that the name of Smith was an unfamiliar one.

“I hardly know what to say,” I returned, for he was evidently waiting for me to add something more to what I had stated. “It rather staggers me to hear that my name-well, you have not heard of me, of course, but there have been a great many distinguished men of the same name: Sydney Smith, for instance, and — and several others.” It mortified me just then to find that I had forgotten all the other distinguished Smiths.

He shook his head, and continued watching my face.

“Not heard of them!” I exclaimed. “Well, I suppose you have heard of some of my great countrymen: Beaconsfield, Gladstone, Darwin, Burne–Jones, Ruskin, Queen Victoria, Tennyson, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, General Gordon, Lord Randolph Churchill — ”

As he continued to shake his head after each name I at length paused.

“Who are all these people you have named?” he asked.

“They are all great and illustrious men and women who have a world-wide reputation,” I answered.

“And are there no more of them — have you told me the names of all the great people you have ever known or heard of?” he said, with a curious smile.

“No, indeed,” I answered, nettled at his words and manner. “It would take me until to-morrow to name all the great men I have ever heard of. I suppose you have heard the names of Napoleon, Wellington, Nelson, Dante, Luther, Calvin, Bismarck, Voltaire?”

He still shook his head.

“Well, then,” I continued, “Homer, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Confucius, Zoroaster, Plato, Shakespeare.” Then, growing thoroughly desperate, I added in a burst: “Noah, Moses, Columbus, Hannibal, Adam and Eve!”

“I am quite sure that I have never heard of any of these names,” he answered, still with that curious smile. “Nevertheless I can understand your surprise. It sometimes happens that the mind, owing an an imperfect adjustment of its faculties, resembles the uneducated vision in its method of judgment, regarding the things which are near as great and important, and those further away as less important, according to their distance. In such a case the individuals one hears about or associates with, come to be looked upon as the great and illustrious beings of the world, and all men in all places are expected to be familiar with their names. But come, my children, our sorrowful task is over, let us now return to the house. Come with us, Smith, and you shall have the refreshment you require.”

I was, of course, pleased with the invitation, but did not relish being addressed as “Smith,” like some mere laborer or other common person tramping about the country.

The long disconcerting scrutiny I had been subjected to had naturally made me very uncomfortable, and caused me to drop a little behind the others as we walked towards the house. The old man, however, still kept at my side; but whether from motives of courtesy, or because he wished to badger me a little more about my uncouth appearance and defective intellect, I was not sure. I was not anxious to continue the conversation, which had not proved very satisfactory; moreover, the beautiful girl I have already mentioned so frequently, was now walking just before me, hand in hand with the young man who had raised her from the ground. I was absorbed in admiration of her graceful figure, and — shall I be forgiven for mentioning such a detail? — her exquisitely rounded legs under her brief and beautiful garments. To my mind the garment was quite long enough. Every time I spoke, for my companion still maintained the conversation and I was obliged to reply, she hung back a little to catch my words. At such times she would also turn her pretty head partially round so as to see me: then her glances, beginning at my face, would wander down to my legs, and her lips would twitch and curl a little, seeming to express disgust and amusement at the same time. I was beginning to hate my legs, or rather my trousers, for I considered that under them I had as good a pair of calves as any man in the company.

Presently I thought of something to say, something very simple, which my dignified old friend would be able to answer without intimating that he considered me a wild man of the woods or an escaped lunatic.

“Can you tell me,” I said pleasantly, “what is the name of your nearest town or city? how far it is from this place, and how I can get there?”

At this question, or series of questions, the young girl turned quite round, and, waiting until I was even with her, she continued her walk at my side, although still holding her companion’s hand.

The old man looked at me with a grave smile — that smile was fast becoming intolerable — and said: “Are you so fond of honey, Smith? You shall have as much as you require without disturbing the bees. They are now taking advantage of this second spring to lay by a sufficient provision before winter sets in.”

After pondering some time over these enigmatical words, I said: “I daresay we are at cross purposes again. I mean,” I added hurriedly, seeing the inquiring look on his face, “that we do not exactly understand each other, for the subject of honey was not in my thoughts.”

“What, then, do you mean by a city?” he asked.

“What do I mean? Why, a city, I take it, is nothing more than a collection or congeries of houses — hundreds and thousands, or hundreds of thousands of houses, all built close together, where one can live very comfortably for years without seeing a blade of grass.”

“I am afraid,” he returned, “that the accident you met with in the mountains must have caused some injury to your brain; for I cannot in any other way account for these strange fantasies.”

“Do you mean seriously to tell me, sir, that you have never even heard of the existence of a city, where millions of human beings live crowded together in a small space? Of course I mean a small space comparatively; for in some cities you might walk all day without getting into the fields; and a city like that might be compared to a beehive so large that a bee might fly in a straight line all day without getting out of it.”

It struck me the moment I finished speaking that this comparison was not quite right somehow; but he did not ask me to explain: he had evidently ceased to pay any attention to what I said. The girl looked at me with an expression of pity, not to say contempt, and I felt at the same time ashamed and vexed. This served to rouse a kind of dogged spirit in me, and I returned to the subject once more.

“Surely,” I said, “you have heard of such cities as Paris, Vienna, Rome, Athens, Babylon, Jerusalem?”

He only shook his head, and walked on in silence.

“And London! London is the capital of England. Why,” I exclaimed, beginning to see light, and wondering at myself for not having seen it sooner, “you are at present talking to me in the English language.”

“I fail to understand your meaning, and am even inclined to doubt that you have any,” said he, a little ruffled. “I am addressing you in the language of human beings — that is all.”

“Well, it seems awfully puzzling,” said I; “but I hope you don’t think I have been indulging in — well, tarradiddles.” Then, seeing that I was making matters no clearer, I added: “I mean that I have not been telling untruths.”

“I could not think that,” he answered sternly. “It would indeed be a clouded mind which could mistake mere disordered fancies for willful offenses against the truth. I have no doubt that when you have recovered from the effects of your late accident these vain thoughts and imaginations will cease to trouble you.”

“And in the meantime, perhaps, I had better say as little as possible,” said I, with considerable temper. “At present we do not seem able to understand each other at all.”

“You are right, we do not,” he said; and then added with a grave smile, “although I must allow that this last remark of yours is quite intelligible.”

“I’m glad of that,” I returned. “It is distressing to talk and not to be understood; it is like men calling to each other in a high wind, hearing voices but not able to distinguish words.”

“Again I understand you,” said he approvingly; while the beautiful girl bestowed on me the coveted reward of a smile, which had no pity or contempt in it.

“I think,” I continued, determined to follow up this new train of ideas on which I had so luckily stumbled, “that we are not so far apart in mind after all. About some things we stand quite away from each other, like the widely diverging branches of a tree; but, like the branches, we have a meeting-place, and this is, I fancy, in that part of our nature where our feelings are. My accident in the hills has not disarranged that part of me, I am sure, and I can give you an instance. A little while ago when I was standing behind the bushes watching you all, I saw this young lady —— ”

Here a look of surprise and inquiry from the girl warned me that I was once more plunging into obscurity.

“When I saw you,” I continued, somewhat amused at her manner, “cast yourself on the earth to kiss the cold face of one you had loved in life, I felt the tears of sympathy come to my own eyes.”

“Oh, how strange!” she exclaimed, flashing on me a glance from her green, mysterious eyes; and then, to increase my wonder and delight, she deliberately placed her hand in mine.

“And yet not strange,” said the old man, by way of comment on her words.

“It seemed strange to Yoletta that one so unlike us outwardly should be so like us in heart,” remarked the young man at her side.

There was something about this speech which I did not altogether like, though I could not detect anything like sarcasm in the tone of the speaker.

“And yet,” continued the lovely girl, “you never saw him living — never heard his sweet voice, which still seems to come back to me like a melody from the distance.”

“Was he your father?” I asked.

The question seemed to surprise her very much. “He is our father,” she returned, with a glance at the old gentleman, which seemed strange, for he certainly looked aged enough to be her great-grandfather.

He smiled and said: “You forget, my daughter, that I am as little known to this stranger to our country as all the great and illustrious personages he has mentioned are to us.”

At this point I began to lose interest in the conversation. It was enough for me to feel that I held that precious hand in mine, and presently I felt tempted to administer a gentle squeeze. She looked at me and smiled, then glanced over my whole person, the survey finishing at my boots, which seemed to have a disagreeable fascination for her. She shivered slightly, and withdrew her hand from mine, and in my heart I cursed those rusty, thick-soled monstrosities in which my feet were cased. However, we were all on a better footing now; and I resolved for the future to avoid all dangerous topics, historical and geographical, and confine myself to subjects relating to the emotional side of our natures.

At the end our way to the house was over a green turf, among great trees as in a park; and as there was no road or path, the first sight of the building seen near, when we emerged from the trees, came as a surprise. There were no gardens, lawns, inclosures or hedges near it, nor cultivation of any kind. It was like a wilderness, and the house produced the effect of a noble ruin. It was a hilly stone country where masses of stone cropped out here and there among the woods and on the green slopes, and it appeared that the house had been raised on the natural foundation of one of these rocks standing a little above the river that flowed behind it. The stone was gray, tinged with red, and the whole rock, covering an acre or so of ground, had been worn or hewn down to form a vast platform which stood about a dozen feet above the surrounding green level. The sloping and buttressed sides of the platform were clothed with ivy, wild shrubs, and various flowering plants. Broad, shallow steps led up to the house, which was all of the same material — reddish-gray stone; and the main entrance was beneath a lofty portico, the sculptured entablature of which was supported by sixteen huge caryatides, standing on round massive pedestals. The building was not high as a castle or cathedral; it was a dwelling-place, and had but one floor, and resembled a ruin to my eyes because of the extreme antiquity of its appearance, the weather-worn condition and massiveness of the sculptured surfaces, and the masses of ancient ivy covering it in places. On the central portion of the building rested a great dome-shaped roof, resembling ground glass of a pale reddish tint, producing the effect of a cloud resting on the stony summit of a hill.

I remained standing on the grass about thirty yards from the first steps after the others had gone in, all but the old gentleman, who still kept with me. By-and-by, withdrawing to a stone bench under an oak-tree, he motioned to me to take a seat by his side. He said nothing, but appeared to be quietly enjoying my undisguised surprise and admiration.

“A noble mansion!” I remarked at length to my venerable host, feeling, Englishman-like, a sudden great access of respect towards the owner of a big house. Men in such a position can afford to be as eccentric as they like, even to the wearing of Carnivalesque garments, burying their friends or relations in a park, and shaking their heads over such names as Smith or Shakespeare. “A glorious place! It must have cost a pot of money, and taken a long time to build.”

“What you mean by a pot of money I do not know,” said he. “When you add a long time to build, I am also puzzled to understand you. For are not all houses, like the forest of trees, the human race, the world we live in, eternal?”

“If they stand forever they are so in one sense, I suppose,” I answered, beginning to fear that I had already unfortunately broken the rule I had so recently laid down for my own guidance. “But the trees of the forest, to which you compare a house, spring from seed, do they not? and so have a beginning. Their end also, like the end of man, is to die and return to the dust.”

“That is true,” he returned; “it is, moreover, a truth which I do not now hear for the first time; but it has no connection with the subject we are discussing. Men pass away, and others take their places. Trees also decay, but the forest does not die, or suffer for the loss of individual trees; is it not the same with the house and the family inhabiting it, which is one with the house, and endures forever, albeit the members composing it must all in time return to the dust?”

“Is there no decay, then, of the materials composing a house?”

“Assuredly there is! Even the hardest stone is worn in time by the elements, or by the footsteps of many generations of men; but the stone that decays is removed, and the house does not suffer.”

“I have never looked at it quite in this light before,” said I. “But surely we can build a house whenever we wish!”

“Build a house whenever we wish!” he repeated, with that astonished look which threatened to become the permanent expression of his face — so long as he had me to talk with, at any rate.

“Yes, or pull one down if we find it unsuitable — ” But his look of horror here made me pause, and to finish the sentence I added: “Of course, you must admit that a house had a beginning?”

“Yes; and so had the forest, the mountain, the human race, the world itself. But the origin of all these things is covered with the mists of time.”

“Does it never happen, then, that a house, however substantially built — ”

“However what! But never mind; you continue to speak in riddles. Pray, finish what you were saying.”

“Does it never happen that a house is overthrown by some natural force — by floods, or subsidence of the earth, or is destroyed by lightning or fire?”

“No!” he answered, with such tremendous emphasis that he almost made me jump from my seat. “Are you alone so ignorant of these things that you speak of building and of pulling down a house?”

“Well, I fancied I knew a lot of things once,” I answered, with a sigh. “But perhaps I was mistaken — people often are. I should like to hear you say something more about all these things — I mean about the house and the family, and the rest of it.”

“Are you not, then, able to read — have you been taught absolutely nothing?”

“Oh yes, certainly I can read,” I answered, joyfully seizing at once on the suggestion, which seemed to open a simple, pleasant way of escape from the difficulty. “I am by no means a studious person; perhaps I am never so happy as when I have nothing to read. Nevertheless, I do occasionally look into books, and greatly appreciate their gentle, kindly ways. They never shut themselves up with a sound like a slap, or throw themselves at your head for a duffer, but seem silently grateful for being read, even by a stupid person, and teach you very patiently, like a pretty, meek-spirited young girl.”

“I am very pleased to hear it,” said he. “You shall read and learn all these things for yourself, which is the best method. Or perhaps I ought rather to say, you shall by reading recall them to your mind, for it is impossible to believe that it has always been in its present pitiable condition. I can only attribute such a mental state, with its disordered fancies about cities, or immense hives of human beings, and other things equally frightful to contemplate, and its absolute vacancy concerning ordinary matters of knowledge, to the grave accident you met with in the hills. Doubtless in falling your head was struck and injured by a stone. Let us hope that you will soon recover possession of your memory and other faculties. And now let us repair to the eating-room, for it is best to refresh the body first, and the mind afterwards.”

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