A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 4

We came to a large portico-like place open on three sides to the air, the roof being supported by slender columns. We were now on the opposite side of the house and looked upon the river, which was not more than a couple of hundred yards from the terrace or platform on which it stood. The ground here sloped rapidly to the banks, and, like that in the front, was a wilderness with rock and patches of tall fern and thickets of thorn and bramble, with a few trees of great size. Nor was wild life wanting in this natural park; some deer were feeding near the bank, while on the water numbers of wild duck and other water-fowl were disporting themselves, splashing and flapping over the surface and uttering shrill cries.

The people of the house were already assembled, standing and sitting by the small tables. There was a lively hum of conversation, which ceased on my entrance; then those who were sitting stood up and the whole company fixed its eyes on me, which was rather disconcerting.

The old gentleman, standing in the midst of the people, now bent on me a long, scrutinizing gaze; he appeared to be waiting for me to speak, and, finding that I remained silent, he finally addressed me with solemnity. “Smith,” he said — and I did not like it — “the meeting with you today was to me and to all of us a very strange experience: I little thought that an even stranger one awaited me, that before you break bread in this house in which you have found shelter, I should have to remind you that you are now in a house.”

“Yes, I know I am,” I said, and then added: “I’m sure, sir, I appreciate your kindness in bringing me here.”

He had perhaps expected something more or something entirely different from me, as he continued standing with his eyes fixed on me. Then with a sigh, and looking round him, he said in a dissatisfied tone: “My children, let us begin, and for the present put out of our minds this matter which has been troubling us.”

He then motioned me to a seat at his own table, where I was pleased to have a place since the lovely Yoletta was also there.

I am not particular about what I eat, as with me good digestion waits on appetite, and so long as I get a bellyful — to use a good old English word — I am satisfied. On this particular occasion, with or without a pretty girl at the table, I could have consumed a haggis — that greatest abomination ever invented by flesh-eating barbarians — I was so desperately hungry. It was therefore a disappointment when nothing more substantial than a plate of whitey-green, crisp-looking stuff resembling endive, was placed before me by one of the picturesque handmaidens. It was cold and somewhat bitter to the taste, but hunger compelled me to eat it even to the last green leaf; then, when I began to wonder if it would be right to ask for more, to my great relief other more succulent dishes followed, composed of various vegetables. We also had some pleasant drinks, made, I suppose, from the juices of fruits, but the delicious alcoholic sting was not in them. We had fruits, too, of unfamiliar flavors, and a confection of crushed nuts and honey.

We sat at table — or tables — a long time, and the meal was enlivened with conversation; for all now appeared in a cheerful frame of mind, notwithstanding the melancholy event which had occupied them during the day. It was, in fact, a kind of supper, and the one great meal of the day: the only other meals being a breakfast, and at noon a crust of brown bread, a handful of dried fruit, and drink of milk.

At the conclusion of the repast, during which I had been too much occupied to take notice of everything that passed, I observed that a number of small birds had flown in, and were briskly hopping over the floor and tables, also perching quite fearlessly on the heads or shoulders of the company, and that they were being fed with the fragments. I took them to be sparrows and things of that kind, but they did not look altogether familiar to me. One little fellow, most lively in his motions, was remarkably like my old friend the robin, only the bosom was more vivid, running almost into orange, and the wings and tail were tipped with the same hue, giving it quite a distinguished appearance. Another small olive-green bird, which I at first took for a green linnet, was even prettier, the throat and bosom being of a most delicate buff, crossed with a belt of velvet black. The bird that really seemed most like a common sparrow was chestnut, with a white throat and mouse-colored wings and tail. These pretty little pensioners systematically avoided my neighborhood, although I tempted them with crumbs and fruit; only one flew onto my table, but had no sooner done so than it darted away again, and out of the room, as if greatly alarmed. I caught the pretty girl’s eye just then, and having finished eating, and being anxious to join the conversation, for I hate to sit silent when others are talking. I remarked that it was strange the little birds so persistently avoided me.

“Oh no, not at all strange,” she replied, with surprising readiness, showing that she too had noticed it. “They are frightened at your appearance.”

“I must indeed appear strange to them,” said I, with some bitterness, and recalling the adventures of the morning. “It is to me a new and very painful experience to walk about the world frightening men, cattle, and birds; yet I suppose it is entirely due to the clothes I am wearing — and the boots. I wish some kind person would suggest a remedy for this state of things; for just now my greatest desire is to be dressed in accordance with the fashion.”

“Allow me to interrupt you for one moment, Smith,” said the old gentleman, who had been listening attentively to my words. “We understood what you said so well on this occasion that it seems a pity you should suddenly again render yourself unintelligible. Can you explain to us what you mean by dressing in accordance with the fashion?”

“My meaning is, that I simply desire to dress like one of yourselves, to see the last of these uncouth garments.” I could not help putting a little vicious emphasis on that hateful word.

He inclined his head and said, “Yes?”

Thus encouraged, I dashed boldly into the middle of matter; for now, having dined, albeit without wine, I was inflamed with an intense craving to see myself arrayed in their rich, mysterious dress. “This being so,” I continued, “may I ask you if it is in your power to provide me with the necessary garments, so that I may cease to be an object of aversion and offense to every living thing and person, myself included?”

A long and uncomfortable silence ensued, which was perhaps not strange, considering the nature of the request. That I had blundered once more seemed likely enough, from the general suspense and the somewhat alarmed expression of the old gentleman’s countenance; nevertheless, my motives had been good: I had expressed my wish in that way for the sake of peace and quietness, and fearing that if I had asked to be directed to the nearest clothing establishment, a new fit of amazement would have been the result.

Finding the silence intolerable, I at length ventured to remark that I feared he had not understood me to the end.

“Perhaps not,” he answered gravely. “Or, rather let me say, I hope not.”

“May I explain my meaning?” said I, greatly distressed.

“Assuredly you may,” he replied with dignity. “Only before you speak, let me put this plain question to you: Do you ask us to provide you with garments — that is to say, to bestow them as a gift on you?”

“Certainly not!” I exclaimed, turning crimson with shame to think that they were all taking me for a beggar. “My wish is to obtain them somehow from somebody, since I cannot make them for myself, and to give in return their full value.”

I had no sooner spoken than I greatly feared that I had made matters worse; for here was I, a guest in the house, actually offering to purchase clothing — ready-made or to to order — from my host, who, for all I knew, might be one of the aristocracy of the country. My fears, however, proved quite groundless.

“I am glad to hear your explanation,” he answered, “for it has completely removed the unpleasant impression caused by your former words. What can you do in return for the garments you are anxious to possess? And here, let me remark, I approve highly of your wish to escape, with the least possible delay, from your present covering. Do you wish to confine yourself to the finishing of some work in a particular line — as wood-carving, or stone, metal, clay or glass work; or in making or using colors? or have you only that general knowledge of the various arts which would enable you to assist the more skilled in preparing materials?”

“No, I am not an artist,” I replied, surprised at his question. “All I can do is to buy the clothes — to pay for them in money.”

“What do you mean by that? What is money?”

“Surely —— ” I began, but fortunately checked myself in time, for I had meant to suggest that he was pulling my leg. But it was really hard to believe that a person of his years did not know what money was. Besides, I could not answer the question, having always abhorred the study of political economy, which tells you all about it; so that I had never learned to define money, but only how to spend it. Presently I thought the best way out of the muddle was to show him some, and I accordingly pulled out my big leather book-purse from my breast pocket. It had an ancient, musty smell, like everything else about me, but seemed pretty heavy and well-filled, and I proceeded to open it and turn the contents on the table. Eleven bright sovereigns and three half-crowns or florins, I forget which, rolled out; then, unfolding the papers, I discovered three five-pound Bank of England notes.

“Surely this is very little for me to have about me!” said I, feeling greatly disappointed. “I fancy I must have been making ducks and drakes of a lot of cash before — before — well, before I was — I don’t know what, or when, or where.”

Little notice was taken of this somewhat incoherent speech, for all were now gathering round the table, examining the gold and notes with eager curiosity. At length the old gentleman, pointing to the gold pieces, said: “What are these?”

“Sovereigns,” I answered, not a little amused. “Have you never seen any like them before?”

“Never. Let me examine them again. Yes, these eleven are of gold. They are all marked alike, on one side with a roughly-executed figure of a woman’s head, with the hair gathered on its summit in a kind of ball. There are also other things on them which I do not understand.”

“Can you not read the letters?” I asked.

“No. The letters — if these marks are letters — are incomprehensible to me. But what have these small pieces of metal to do with the question of your garments? You puzzle me.”

“Why, everything. These pieces of metal, as you call them, are money, and represent, of course, so much buying power. I don’t know yet what your currency is, and whether you have the dollar or the rupee” — here I paused, seeing that he did not follow me. “My idea is this,” I resumed, and coming down to very plain speaking: “I can give one of these five-pound notes, or its equivalent in gold, if you prefer that — five of these sovereigns, I mean — for a suit of clothes such as you all wear.”

So great was my desire to possess the clothes that I was about to double the offer, which struck me as poor, and add that I would give ten sovereigns; but when I had spoken he dropped the piece he held in his hand upon the table, and stared fixedly at me, assisted by all the others. Presently, in the profound silence which ensued, a low, silvery gurgling became audible, as of some merry mountain burn — a sweet, warbling sound, swelling louder by degrees until it ended in a long ringing peal of laughter.

This was from the girl Yoletta. I stared at her, surprised at her unseasonable levity; but the only effect of my doing so was a general explosion, men and women joining in such a tempest of merriment that one might have imagined they had just heard the most wonderful joke ever invented since man acquired the sense of the ludicrous.

The old gentleman was the first to recover a decent gravity, although it was plain to see that he struggled severely at intervals to prevent a relapse.

“Smith,” said he, “of all the extraordinary delusions you appear to be suffering from, this, that you can have garments to wear in return for a small piece of paper, or for a few bits of this metal, is the most astounding! You cannot exchange these trifles for clothes, because clothes are the fruit of much labor of many hands.”

“And yet, sir, you said you understood me when I proposed to pay for the things I require,” said I, in an aggrieved tone. “You seemed even to approve of the offer I made. How, then, am I to pay for them if all I possess is not considered of any value?”

All you possess!” he replied. “Surely I did not say that! Surely you possess the strength and skill common to all men, and can acquire anything you wish by the labor of your hands.”

I began once more to see light, although my skill, I knew, would not count for much. “Ah yes,” I answered: “to go back to that subject, I do not know anything about wood-carving or using colors, but I might be able to do something — some work of a simpler kind.”

“There are trees to be felled, land to be plowed, and many other things to be done. If you will do these things some one else will be released to perform works of skill; and as these are the most agreeable to the worker, it would please us more to have you labor in the fields than in the workhouse.”

“I am strong,” I answered, “and will gladly undertake labor of the kind you speak of. There is, however, one difficulty. My desire is to change these clothes for others which will be more pleasing to the eye, at once; but the work I shall have to do in return will not be finished in a day. Perhaps not in — well, several days.”

“No, of course not,” said he. “A year’s labor will be necessary to pay for the garments you require.”

This staggered me; for if the clothes were given to me at the beginning, then before the end of the year they would be worn to rags, and I should make myself a slave for life. I was sorely perplexed in mind, and pulled about this way and that by the fear of incurring a debt, and the desire to see myself (and to be seen by Yoletta) in those strangely fascinating garments. That I had a decent figure, and was not a bad-looking young fellow, I was pretty sure; and the hope that I should be able to create an impression (favorable, I mean) on the heart of that supremely beautiful girl was very strong in me. At all events, by closing with the offer I should have a year of happiness in her society, and a year of healthy work in the fields could not hurt me, or interfere much with my prospects. Besides, I was not quite sure that my prospects were really worth thinking about just now. Certainly, I had always lived comfortably, spending money, eating and drinking of the best, and dressing well — that is, according to the London standard. And there was my dear old bachelor Uncle Jack — John Smith, Member of Parliament for Wormwood Scrubbs. That is to say, ex-Member; for, being a Liberal when the great change came at the last general election, he was ignominiously ousted from his seat, the Scrubbs proving at the finish a bitter place to him. He was put out in more ways than one, and tried to comfort himself by saying that there would soon be another dissolution — thinking of his own, possibly, being an old man. I remembered that I had rather looked forward to such a contingency, thinking how pleasant it would be to have all that money, and cruise about the world in my own yacht, enjoying myself as I knew how. And really I had some reason to hope. I remember he used to wind up the talk of an evening when I dined with him (and got a check) by saying: “My boy, you have talents, if you’d only use ’em.” Where were those talents now? Certainly they had not made me shine much during the last few hours.

Now, all this seemed unsubstantial, and I remembered these things dimly, like a dream or a story told to me in childhood; and sometimes, when recalling the past, I seemed to be thinking about ancient history — Sesostris, and the Babylonians and Assyrians, and that sort of thing. And, besides, it would be very hard to get back from a place where even the name of London was unknown. And perhaps, if I ever should succeed in getting back, it would only be to encounter a second Roger Tichborne case, or to be confronted with the statute of limitations. Anyhow, a year could not make much difference, and I should also keep my money, which seemed an advantage, though it wasn’t much. I looked up: they were all once more studying the coins and notes, and exchanging remarks about them.

“If I bind myself to work one year,” said I, “shall I have to wait until the end of that time before I get the clothes?”

The reply to this question, I thought, would settle the matter one way or the other.

“No,” said he. “It is your wish, and also ours, that you should be differently clothed at once, and the garments you require would be made for you immediately.”

“Then,” said I, taking the desperate plunge, “I should like to have them as soon as possible, and I am ready to commence work at once.”

“You shall commence to-morrow morning,” he answered, smiling at my impetuosity. “The daughters of the house, whose province it is to make these things, shall also suspend other work until your garments are finished. And now, my son, from this evening you are one of the house and one of us, and the things which we possess you also possess in common with us.”

I rose and thanked him. He too rose, and, after looking round on us with a fatherly smile, went away to the interior of the house.

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