A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 20

Arrived at the house I was again disappointed at not seeing Yoletta; yet without reasonable cause, since it was scarcely past midday, and she came out from attending on her mother only at long intervals — in the morning, and again just before evening — to taste the freshness of nature for a few minutes.

The music-room was deserted when I went there; but it was made warm and pleasant by the sun shining brightly in at the doors opening to the south. I went on to the extreme end of the room, remembering now that I had seen some volumes there when I had no time or inclination to look at them, and I wanted something to read; for although I found reading very irksome at this period, there was really little else I could do. I found the books — three volumes — in the lower part of an alcove in the wall; above them, within a niche in the alcove, on a level with my face as I stood there, I observed a bulb-shaped bottle, with a long thin neck, very beautifully colored. I had seen it before, but without paying particular attention to it, there being so many treasures of its kind in the house; now, seeing it so closely, I could not help admiring its exquisite beauty, and feeling puzzled at the scene depicted on it. In the widest part it was encircled with a band, and on it appeared slim youths and maidens, in delicate, rose-colored garments, with butterfly wings on their shoulders, running or hurriedly walking, playing on instruments of various forms, their faces shining with gladness, their golden hair tossed by the wind — a gay procession, without beginning or end. Behind these joyful ones, in pale gray, and half-obscured by the mists that formed the background, appeared a second procession, hurrying in an opposite direction — men and women of all ages, but mostly old, with haggard, woebegone faces; some bowed down, their eyes fixed on the ground; others wringing their hands, or beating their breasts; and all apparently suffering the utmost affliction of mind.

Above the bottle there was a deep circular cell in the alcove, about fifteen inches in diameter; fitted in it was a metal ring, to which were attached golden strings, fine as gossamer threads: behind the first ring was a second, and further in still others, all stringed like the first, so that looking into the cell it appeared filled with a mist of golden cobweb.

Drawing a cushioned seat to this secluded nook, where no person passing casually through the room would be able to see me, I sat down, and feeling too indolent to get myself a reading-stand, I supported the volume I had taken up to read on my knees. It was entitled Conduct and Ceremonial, and the subject-matter was divided into short sections, each with an appropriate heading. Turning over the leaves, and reading a sentence here and there in different sections, it occurred to me that this might prove a most useful work for me to study, whenever I could bring my mind into the right frame for such a task; for it contained minute instructions upon all points relating to individual conduct in the house — as the entertainment of pilgrims, the dress to be worn, and the conduct to be observed at the various annual festivals, with other matters of the kind. Glancing through it in this rapid way, I soon finished with the first volume, then went through the second in even less time, for many of the concluding sections related to lugubrious subjects which I did not care to linger over; the titles alone were enough to trouble me — Decay through Age, Ailments of Mind and of Body; then Death, and, finally, the Disposal of the Dead. This done I took up the third volume, the last of the series, the first portion of which was headed, Renewal of the Family. This part I began to examine with some attention, and pretty soon discovered that I had now at last accidentally stumbled upon a perfect mine of information of the precise kind I had so long and so vainly been seeking. Struggling to overcome my agitation I read on, hurrying through page after page with the greatest rapidity; for there was here much matter that had no special interest for me, but incidentally the things which concerned me most to know were touched on, and in some cases minutely explained. As I proceeded, the prophetic gloom which had oppressed me all that day, and for so many days before, darkened to the blackness of despair, and suddenly throwing up my arms, the book slipped from my knees and fell with a crash upon the floor. There, face downwards, with its beautiful leaves doubled and broken under its weight, it rested unheeded at my feet. For now the desired knowledge was mine, and that dream of happiness which had illumined my life was over. Now I possessed the secret of that passionless, everlasting calm of beings who had for ever outlived, and left as immeasurably far behind as the instincts of the wolf and ape, the strongest emotion of which my heart was capable. For the children of the house there could be no union by marriage; in body and soul they differed from me: they had no name for that feeling which I had so often and so vainly declared; therefore they had told me again and again that there was only one kind of love, for they, alas! could experience one kind only. I did not, for the moment, seek further in the book, or pause to reflect on that still unexplained mystery, which was the very center and core of the whole mater, namely, the existence of the father and mother in the house, from whose union the family was renewed, and who, fruitful themselves, were yet the parents of a barren race. Nor did I ask who their successors would be: for albeit long-lived, they were mortal like their own passionless children, and in this particular house their lives appeared now to be drawing to an end. These were questions I cared nothing about. It was enough to know that Yoletta could never love me as I loved her — that she could never be mine, body and soul, in my way and not in hers. With unspeakable bitterness I recalled my conversation with Chastel: now all her professions of affection and goodwill, all her schemes for smoothing my way and securing my happiness, seemed to me the veriest mockery, since even she had read my heart no better than the others, and that chill moonlight felicity, beyond which her children were powerless to imagine anything, had no charm for my passion-torn heart.

Presently, when I began to recover somewhat from my stupefaction, and to realize the magnitude of my loss, the misery of it almost drove me mad. I wished that I had never made this fatal discovery, that I might have continued still hoping and dreaming, and wearing out my heart with striving after the impossible, since any fate would have been preferable to the blank desolation which now confronted me. I even wished to possess the power of some implacable god or demon, that I might shatter the sacred houses of this later race, and destroy them everlastingly, and repeople the peaceful world with struggling, starving millions, as in the past, so that the beautiful flower of love which had withered in men’s hearts might blossom again.

While these insane thoughts were passing through my brain I had risen from my seat, and stood leaning against the edge of the alcove, with that curious richly-colored bottle close to my eyes. There were letters on it, noticed now for the first time — minute, hair-like lines beneath the strange-contrasted processionists depicted on the band — and even in my excited condition I was a little startled when these letters, forming the end of a sentence, shaped themselves into the words — and for the old life there shall be a new life.

Turning the bottle round I read the whole sentence. When time and disease oppress, and the sun grows cold in heaven, and there is no longer any joy on the earth, and the fire of love grows cold in the heart, drink of me, and for the old life there shall be a new life.

“Another important secret!” thought I; “this day has certainly been fruitful in discoveries. A panacea for all diseases, even for the disease of old age, so that a man may live two hundred years, and still find some pleasure in existence. But for me life has lost its savor, and I have no wish to last so long. There is more writing here — another secret perhaps, but I doubt very much that it will give me any comfort.”

When your soul is darkened, so that it is hard to know evil from good, and the thoughts that are in you lead to madness, drink of me, and be cured.

“No, I shall not drink and be cured! Better a thousand times the thoughts that lead to madness than this colorless existence without love. I do not wish to recover from so sweet a malady.”

I took the bottle in my hand and unstopped it. The stopper formed a curious little cup, round the rim of which was written, Drink of me. I poured some of the liquid out into the cup; it was pale yellow in color, and had a faint sickly smell as of honeysuckles. Then I poured it back again and replaced the bottle in its niche.

Drink and be cured. No, not yet. Some day, perhaps, my trouble increasing till it might no longer be borne, would drive me to seek such dreary comfort as this cure-all bottle contained. To love without hope was sad enough, but to be without love was even sadder.

I had grown calm now: the knowledge that I had it in my power to escape at once and for eyer from that rage of desire, had served to sober my mind, and at last I began to reason about the matter. The nature of my secret feelings could never be suspected, and in the unsubstantial realm of the imagination it would still be in my power to hide myself with my love, and revel in all supreme delight. Would not that be better than this cure — this calm contentment held out to me? And in time also my feelings would lose their present intensity, which often made them an agony, and would come at last to exist only as a gentle rapture stirring in my heart when I clasped my darling to my bosom and pressed her sweet lips with mine. Ah, no! that was a vain dream, I could not be deceived by it; for who can say to the demon of passion in him, thus far shalt thou go and no further?

Perplexed in mind and unable to decide which thing was best, my troubled thoughts at length took me back to that far-off dead past, when the passion of love was so much in man’s life. It was much; but in that over-populated world it divided the empire of his soul with a great, ever-growing misery — the misery of the hungry ones whose minds were darkened, through long years of decadence, with a sullen rage against God and man; and the misery of those who, wanting nothing, yet feared that the end of all things was coming to them.

For the space of half an hour I pondered on these things, then said: “If I were to tell a hundredth part of this black retrospect to Yoletta, would not she bid me drink and forget, and herself pour out the divine liquor, and press it to my lips?”

Again I took the bottle with trembling hand, and filled the same small cup to the brim, saying: “For your sake then, Yoletta, let me drink, and be cured; for this is what you desire, and you are more to me than life or passion or happiness. But when this consuming fire has left me — this feeling which until now burns and palpitates in every drop of my blood, every fiber of my being — I know that you shall still be to me a sweet, sacred sister and immaculate bride, worshipped more of my soul than any mother in the house; that loving and being loved by you shall be my one great joy all my life long.”

I drained the cup deliberately, then stopped the bottle and put it back in its place. The liquor was tasteless, but colder than ice, and made me shiver when I swallowed it. I began to wonder whether I would be conscious of the change it was destined to work in me or not; and then, half regretting what I had done, I wished that Yoletta would come to me, so that I might clasp her in my arms with all the old fervor once more, before that icy-cold liquor had done its work. Finally, I carefully raised the fallen book, and smoothed out its doubled leaves, regretting that I had injured it; and, sitting down again, I held the open volume as before, resting on my knees. Now, however, I perceived that it had opened at a place some pages in advance of the passages which had excited me; but, feeling no desire to go back to resume my reading just where I had left off, my eyes mechanically sought the top of the page before me, and this is what I read:

“ . . . make choice of one of the daughters of the house; it is fitting that she should rejoice for that brighter excellence which caused her to be raised to so high a state, and to have authority over all others, since in her, with the father, all the majesty and glory of the house is centered; albeit with a solemn and chastened joy, like that of the pilgrim who, journeying to some distant tropical region of the earth, and seeing the shores of his native country fading from sight, thinks at one and the same time of the unimaginable beauties of nature and art that fire his mind and call him away, and of the wide distance which will hold him for many years divided from all familiar scenes and the beings he loves best, and of the storms and perils of the great wilderness of waves, into which so many have ventured and have not returned. For now a changed body and soul shall separate her forever from those who were one in nature with her; and with that superior happiness destined to be hers there shall be the pains and perils of childbirth, with new griefs and cares unknown to those of humbler condition. But on that lesser gladness had by the children of the house in her exaltation, and because there will be a new mother in the house — one chosen from themselves — there shall be no cloud or shadow; and, taking her by the hand, and kissing her face in token of joy, and of that new filial love and obedience which will be theirs, they shall lead her to the Mother’s Room, thereafter to be inhabited by her as long as life lasts. And she shall no longer serve in the house or suffer rebuke; but all shall serve her in love, and hold her in reverence, who is their predestined mother. And for the space of one year she shall be without authority in the house, being one apart, instructing herself in the secret books which it is not lawful for another to read, and observing day by day the directions contained therein, until that new knowledge and practice shall ripen her for that state she has been chosen to fill.”

This passage was a fresh revelation to me. Again I recalled Chastel’s words, her repeated assurances that she knew what was passing in my mind, that her eyes saw things more clearly than others could see them, that only by giving me the desire of my heart could the one remaining hope of her life be fulfilled. Now I seemed able to understand these dark sayings, and a new excitement, full of the joy of hope, sprang up in me, making me forget the misery I had so recently experienced, and even that increasing sensation of intense cold caused by the draught from the mysterious bottle.

I continued reading, but the above passage was succeeded by minute instructions, extending over several pages, concerning the dress, both for ordinary and extraordinary occasions, to be worn by the chosen daughter during her year of preparation: the conduct to be observed by her towards other members of the family, also towards pilgrims visiting the house in the interval, with many other matters of secondary importance. Impatient to reach the end, I tried to turn the leaves rapidly, but now found that my arm had grown strangely stiff and cold, and seemed like an arm of iron when I raised it, so that the turning over of each leaf was an immense labor. Then I read yet another page, but with the utmost difficulty; for, notwithstanding the eagerness of my mind, my eyes began to remain more and more rigidly fixed on the center of the leaf, so that I could scarcely force them to follow the lines. Here I read that the bride-elect, her year of preparation being over, rises before daylight, and goes out alone to an appointed place at a great distance from the house, there to pass several hours in solitude and silence, communing with her own heart. Meanwhile, in the house all the others array themselves in purple garments, and go out singing at sunrise to gather flowers to adorn their heads; then, proceeding to the appointed spot, they seek for their new mother, and, finding her, lead her home with music and rejoicing.

When, reading in this miserable, painful way, I had reached the bottom of the page, and attempted to turn it over, I found that I could no longer move my hand — my arms being now like arms of iron, absolutely devoid of sensation, while my hands, rigidly grasping the book like the hands of a frozen corpse, held it upright and motionless before me. I tried to start up and shake off this strange deadness from my body, but was powerless to move a muscle. What was the meaning of this condition? for I had absolutely no pain, no discomfort even; for the sensation of intense cold had almost ceased, and my mind was active and clear, and I could hear and see, and yet was as powerless as if I had been buried in a marble coffin a thousand fathoms deep in earth.

Suddenly I remembered the draught from the bottle, and a terrible doubt shot through my heart. Alas! had I mistaken the meaning of those strange words I had read? — was death the cure which that mysterious vessel promised to those who drank of its contents? “When life becomes a burden, it is good to lay it down”; now too late the words of the father, when reproving me after my fever, came back to my mind in all their awful significance.

All at once I heard a voice calling my name, and in a moment the tempest in me was stilled. Yes, it was my darling’s voice — she was coming to me — she would save me in this dire extremity. Again and again she called, but the voice now sounded further and further away; and with ineffable anguish I remembered that she would not be able to see me where I sat. I tried to cry out, “Come quick, Yoletta, and save me from death!” but though I mentally repeated the words again and again in an extreme agony of terror, my frozen tongue refused to make a sound. Presently I heard a light, quick step on the floor, then Yoletta’s clear voice.

“Oh, I have found you at last!” she cried. “I have been seeking you all over the house. I have something glad to tell you — something to make you happier than on that day — do you remember? — when you saw me coming to you in the wood. The mother has left her chamber at last; she is in the Mother’s Room again, waiting impatiently to see you. Come, come!”

Her words sounded distinctly in my ears, and although I could not lift or turn my rigid eyes to see her, yet I seemed to see her now better than ever before, with some fresh glory, as of a new, unaccustomed gladness or excitement enhancing her unsurpassed loveliness, so clearly at that moment did her image shine in my soul! And not hers only, for now suddenly, by a miracle of the mind, the entire family appeared there before me; and in the midst sat Chastel, my sweet, suffering mother, as on that day after my illness when she had pardoned me, and put out her hand for me to kiss. As on that occasion, now — now she was gazing on me with such divine love and compassion in her eyes, her lips half parted, and a slight color flushing her pale face, recalling to it the bloom and radiance of which cruel disease had robbed her! And in my soul also, at that supreme moment, like a scene starting at the lightning’s flash out of thick darkness, shone the image of the house, with all its wide, tranquil rooms rich in art and ancient memories, every stone within them glowing, with everlasting beauty — a house enduring as the green plains and rushing rivers and solemn woods and world-old hills amid which it was set like a sacred gem! O sweet abode of love and peace and purity of heart! O bliss surpassing that of the angels! O rich heritage, must I lose you for ever! Save me from death, Yoletta, my love, my bride — save me — save me — save me!

Then something touched or fell on my neck, and at the same moment a deeper shadow passed over the page before me, with all its rich coloring floating formless, like vapors, mingling and separating, or dancing before my vision, like bright-winged insects hovering in the sunlight; and I knew that she was bending over me, her hand on my neck, her loose hair falling on my forehead.

In that enforced stillness and silence I waited expectant for some moments.

Then a great cry, as of one who suddenly sees a black phantom, rang out loud in the room, jarring my brain with the madness of its terror, and striking as with a hundred passionate hands on all the hidden harps in wall and roof; and the troubled sounds came back to me, now loud and now low, burdened with an infinite anguish and despair, as of voices of innumerable multitudes wandering in the sunless desolations of space, every voice reverberating anguish and despair; and the successive reverberations lifted me like waves and dropped me again, and the waves grew less and the sounds fainter, then fainter still, and died in everlasting silence.

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