A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 3

We ascended the steps, and passing through the portico went into the hall by what seemed to me a doorless way. It was not really so, as I discovered later; the doors, of which there were several, some of colored glass, others of some other material, were simply thrust back into receptacles within the wall itself, which was five or six feet thick. The hall was the noblest I had ever seen; it had a stone and bronze fireplace some twenty or thirty feet long on one side, and several tall arched doorways on the other. The spaces between the doors were covered with sculpture, its material being a blue-gray stone combined or inlaid with a yellow metal, the effect being indescribably rich. The floor was mosaic of many dark colors, but with no definite pattern, and the concave roof was deep red in color. Though beautiful, it was somewhat somber, as the light was not strong. At all events, that is how it struck me at first on coming in from the bright sunlight. Nor, it appeared, was I alone in experiencing such a feeling. As soon as we were inside, the old gentleman, removing his cap and passing his thin fingers through his white hair, looked around him, and addressing some of the others, who were bringing in small round tables and placing them about the hall, said: “No, no; let us sup this evening where we can look at the sky.”

The tables were immediately taken away.

Now some of those who were in the hall or who came in with the tables had not attended the funeral, and these were all astonished on seeing me. They did not stare at me, but I, of course, saw the expression on their faces, and noticed that the others who had made my acquaintance at the grave-side whispered in their ears to explain my presence. This made me extremely uncomfortable, and it was a relief when they began to go out again.

One of the men was seated near me; he was of those who had assisted in carrying the corpse, and he now turned to me and remarked: “You have been a long time in the open air, and probably feel the change as much as we do.”

I assented, and he rose and walked away to the far end of the hall, where a great door stood facing the one by which we had entered. From the spot where I was — a distance of forty or fifty feet, perhaps — this door appeared to be of polished slate of a very dark gray, its surface ornamented with very large horse-chestnut leaves of brass or copper, or both, for they varied in shade from bright yellow to deepest copper-red. It was a double door with agate handles, and, first pressing on one handle, then on the other, he thrust it back into the walls on either side, revealing a new thing of beauty to my eyes, for behind the vanished door was a window, the sight of which came suddenly before me like a celestial vision. Sunshine, wind, cloud and rain had evidently inspired the artist who designed it, but I did not at the time understand the meaning of the symbolic figures appearing in the picture. Below, with loosened dark golden-red hair and amber-colored garments fluttering in the wind, stood a graceful female figure on the summit of a gray rock; over the rock, and as high as her knees, slanted the thin branches of some mountain shrub, the strong wind even now stripping them of their remaining yellow and russet leaves, whirling them aloft and away. Round the woman’s head was a garland of ivy leaves, and she was gazing aloft with expectant face, stretching up her arms, as if to implore or receive some precious gift from the sky. Above, against the slaty-gray cloud-wrack, four exquisite slender girl-forms appeared, with loose hair, silver-gray drapery and gauzy wings as of ephemerae, flying in pursuit of the cloud. Each carried a quantity of flowers, shaped like lilies, in her dress, held up with the left hand; one carried red lilies, another yellow, the third violet, and the last blue; and the gauzy wings and drapery of each was also touched in places with the same hue as the flowers she carried. Looking back in their flight they were all with the disengaged hand throwing down lilies to the standing figure.

This lovely window gave a fresh charm to the whole apartment, while the sunlight falling through it served also to reveal other beauties which I had not observed. One that quickly drew and absorbed my attention was a piece of statuary on the floor at some distance from me, and going to it I stood for some time gazing on it in the greatest delight. It was a statue about one-third the size of life, of a young woman seated on a white bull with golden horns. She had a graceful figure and beautiful countenance; the face, arms and feet were alabaster, the flesh tinted, but with colors more delicate than in nature. On her arms were broad golden armlets, and the drapery, a long flowing robe, was blue, embroidered with yellow flowers. A stringed instrument rested on her knee, and she was represented playing and singing. The bull, with lowered horns, appeared walking; about his chest hung a garland of flowers mingled with ears of yellow corn, oak, ivy, and various other leaves, green and russet, and acorns and crimson berries. The garland and blue dress were made of malachite, lapis lazuli, and various precious stones.

“Aha, my fair Phoenician, I know you well!” thought I exultingly, “though I never saw you before with a harp in your hand. But were you not gathering flowers, O lovely daughter of Agenor, when that celestial animal, that masquerading god, put himself so cunningly in your way to be admired and caressed, until you unsuspiciously placed yourself on his back? That explains the garland. I shall have a word to say about this pretty thing to my learned and very superior host.”

The statue stood on an octagonal pedestal of a highly polished slaty-gray stone, and on each of its eight faces was a picture in which one human figure appeared. Now, from gazing on the statue itself I fell to contemplating one of these pictures with a very keen interest, for the figure, I recognized, was a portrait of the beautiful girl Yoletta. The picture was a winter landscape. The earth was white, not with snow, but with hoar frost; the distant trees, clothed by the frozen moisture as if with a feathery foliage, looked misty against the whitey-blue wintry sky. In the foreground, on the pale frosted grass, stood the girl, in a dark maroon dress, with silver embroidery on the bosom, and a dark red cap on her head. Close to her drooped the slender terminal twigs of a tree, sparkling with rime and icicle, and on the twigs were several small snow-white birds, hopping and fluttering down towards her outstretched hand; while she gazed up at them with flushed cheeks, and lips parting with a bright, joyous smile.

Presently, while I stood admiring this most lovely work, the young man I have mentioned as having raised Yoletta from the ground at the grave came to my side and remarked, smiling: “You have noticed the resemblance.”

“Yes, indeed,” I returned; “she is painted to the life.”

“This is not Yoletta’s portrait,” he replied, “though it is very like her;” and then, when I looked at him incredulously, he pointed to some letters under the picture, saying: “Do you not see the name and date?”

Finding that I could not read the words, I hazarded the remark that it was Yoletta’s mother, perhaps.

“This portrait was painted four centuries ago,” he said, with surprise in his accent; and then he turned aside, thinking me, perhaps, a rather dull and ignorant person.

I did not want him to go away with that impression, and remarked, pointing to the statue I have spoken of: “I fancy I know very well who that is — that is Europa.”

“Europa? That is a name I never heard; I doubt that any one in the house ever bore it.” Then, with a half-puzzled smile, he added: “How could you possibly know unless you were told? No, that is Mistrelde. It was formerly the custom of the house for the Mother to ride on a white bull at the harvest festival. Mistrelde was the last to observe it.”

“Oh, I see,” I returned lamely, though I didn’t see at all. The indifferent way in which he spoke of centuries in connection with this brilliant and apparently fresh-painted picture rather took me aback.

Presently he condescended to say something more. Pointing to the marks or characters which I could not read, he said: “You have seen the name of Yoletta here, and that and the resemblance misled you. You must know that there has always been a Yoletta in this house. This was the daughter of Mistrelde, the Mother, who died young and left but eight children; and when this work was made their portraits were placed on the eight faces of the pedestal.”

“Thanks for telling me,” I said, wondering if it was all true, or only a fantastic romance.

He then motioned me to follow him, and we quitted that room where it had been decided that we were not to sup.

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