A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 6

The reading went on, not of course “for ever,” like that harvest melody he spoke of, but for a considerable time. The words, I concluded, were for the initiated, and not for me, and after a while I gave up trying to make out what it was all about. Those last expressions I have quoted about the “august Mother of the house” were unintelligible, and appeared to me meaningless. I had already come to the conclusion that however many of the ladies of the establishment might have experienced the pleasures and pains of maternity, there was really no mother of the house in the sense that there was a father of the house: that is to say, one possessing authority over the others and calling them all her children indiscriminately. Yet this mysterious non-existent mother of the house was continually being spoken of, as I found now and afterwards when I listened to the talk around me. After thinking the matter over, I came to the conclusion that “mother of the house” was merely a convenient fiction, and simply stood for the general sense of the women-folk, or something of the sort. It was perhaps stupid of me, but the story of Mistrelde, who died young, leaving only eight children, I had regarded as a mere legend or fable of antiquity.

To return to the reading. Just as I had been absorbed before in that beautiful book without being able to read it, so now I listened to that melodious and majestic voice, experiencing a singular pleasure without properly understanding the sense. I remembered now with a painful feeling of inferiority that my thick speech had been remarked On earlier in the day; and I could not but think that, compared with the speech of this people, it was thick. In their rare physical beauty, the color of their eyes and hair, and in their fascinating dress, they had struck me as being utterly unlike any people ever seen by me. But it was perhaps in their clear, sweet, penetrative voice, which sometimes reminded me of a tender-toned wind instrument, that they most differed from others.

The reading, I have said, had struck me as almost of the nature of a religious service; nevertheless, everything went on as before — reading, working, and occasional conversation; but the subdued talking and moving about did not interfere with one’s pleasure in the old man’s musical speech any more than the soft murmur and flying about of honey bees would prevent one from enjoying the singing of a skylark. Emboldened by what I saw the others doing, I left my seat and made my way across the floor to Yoletta’s side, stealing through the gloom with great caution to avoid making a clatter with those abominable boots.

“May I sit down near you?” said I with some hesitation; but she encouraged me with a smile and placed a cushion for me.

I settled myself down in the most graceful position I could assume, which was not at all graceful, doubling my objectionable legs out of her sight; and then began my trouble, for I was greatly perplexed to know what to say to her. I thought of lawn-tennis and archery. Ellen Terry’s acting, the Royal Academy Exhibition, private theatricals, and twenty things besides, but they all seemed unsuitable subjects to start conversation with in this case. There was, I began to fear, no common ground on which we could meet and exchange thoughts, or, at any rate, words. Then I remembered that ground, common and broad enough, of our human feelings, especially the sweet and important feeling of love. But how was I to lead up to it? The work she was engaged with at length suggested an opening, and the opportunity to make a pretty little speech.

“Your sight must be as good as your eyes are pretty,” said I, “to enable you to work in such a dim light.”

“Oh, the light is good enough,” she answered, taking no notice of the compliment. “Besides, this is such easy work I could do it in the dark.”

“It is very pretty work — may I look at it?”

She handed the stuff to me, but instead of taking it in the ordinary way, I placed my hand under hers, and, holding up cloth and hand together, proceeded to give a minute and prolonged scrutiny to her work.

“Do you know that I am enjoying two distinct pleasures at one and the same time?” said I. “One is in seeing your work, the other in holding your hand; and I think the last pleasure even greater than the first.” As she made no reply, I added somewhat lamely: “May I— keep on holding it?”

“That would prevent me from working,” she answered, with the utmost gravity. “But you may hold it for a little while.”

“Oh, thank you,” I exclaimed, delighted with the privilege; and then, to make the most of my precious “little while,” I pressed it warmly, whereupon she cried out aloud: “Oh, Smith, you are squeezing too hard — you hurt my hand!”

I dropped it instantly in the greatest confusion. “Oh, for goodness sake,” I stammered, “please, do not make such an outcry! You don’t know what a hobble you’ll get me into.”

Fortunately, no notice was taken of the exclamation, though it was hard to believe that her words had not been overheard; and presently, recovering from my fright, I apologized for hurting her, and hoped she would forgive me.

“There is nothing to forgive,” she returned gently. “You did not really squeeze hard, only my hand hurts, because to-day when I pressed it on the ground beside the grave I ran a small thorn into it.” Then the remembrance of that scene at the burial brought a sudden mist of tears into her lovely eyes.

“I am so sorry I hurt you, Yoletta — may I call you Yoletta?” said I, all at once remembering that she had called me Smith, without the customary prefix.

“Why, that is my name — what else should you call me?” she returned, evidently with surprise.

“It is a pretty name, and so sweet on the lips that I should like to be repeating it continually,” I answered. “But it is only right that you should have a pretty name, because — well, if I may tell you, because you are so very beautiful.”

“Yes; but is that strange — are not all people beautiful?”

I thought of certain London types, especially among the “criminal classes,” and of the old women with withered, simian faces and wearing shawls, slinking in or out of public-houses at the street corners; and also of some people of a better class I had known personally — some even in the House of Commons; and I felt that I could not agree with her, much as I wished to do so, without straining my conscience.

“At all events, you will allow,” said I, evading the question, “that there are degrees of beauty, just as there are degrees of light. You may be able to see to work in this light, but it is very faint compared with the noonday light when the sun is shining.”

“Oh, there is not so great a difference between people as that,” she replied, with the air of a philosopher. “There are different kinds of beauty, I allow, and some people seem more beautiful to us than others, but that is only because we love them more. The best loved are always the most beautiful.”

This seemed to reverse the usual idea, that the more beautiful the person is the more he or she gets loved. However, I was not going to disagree with her any more, and only said: “How sweetly you talk, Yoletta; you are as wise as you are beautiful. I could wish for no greater pleasure than to sit here listening to you the whole evening.”

“Ah, then, I am sorry I must leave you now,” she answered, with a bright smile which made me think that perhaps my little speech had pleased her.

“Do you wonder why I smile?” she added, as if able to read my thoughts. “It is because I have often heard words like yours from one who is waiting for me now.”

This speech caused me a jealous pang. But for a few moments after speaking, she continued regarding me with that bright, spiritual smile on her lips; then it faded, and her face clouded and her glance fell. I did not ask her to tell me, nor did I ask myself, the reason of that change; and afterwards how often I noticed that same change in her, and in the others too — that sudden silence and clouding of the face, such as may be seen in one who freely expresses himself to a person who cannot hear, and then, all at once but too late, remembers the other’s infirmity.

“Must you go?” I only said. “What shall I do alone?”.

“Oh, you shall not be alone,” she replied, and going away returned presently with another lady. “This is Edra,” she said simply. “She will take my place by your side and talk with you.”

I could not tell her that she had taken my words too literally, that being alone simply meant being separated from her; but there was no help for it, and some one, alas! some one I greatly hated was waiting for her. I could only thank her and her friend for their kind intentions. But what in the name of goodness was I to say to this beautiful woman who was sitting by me? She was certainly very beautiful, with a far more mature and perhaps a nobler beauty than Yoletta’s, her age being about twenty-seven or twenty-eight; but the divine charm in the young girl’s face could, for me, exist in no other.

Presently she opened the conversation by asking me if I disliked being alone.

“Well, no, perhaps not exactly that,” I said; “but I think it much jollier — much more pleasant, I mean — to have some very nice person to talk to.”

She assented, and, pleased at her ready intelligence, I added: “And it is particularly pleasant when you are understood. But I have no fear that you, at any rate, will fail to understand anything I may say.”

“You have had some trouble to-day,” she returned, with a charming smile. “I sometimes think that women can understand even more readily than men.”

“There’s not a doubt of it!” I returned warmly, glad to find that with Edra it was all plain sailing. “It must be patent to every one that women have far quicker, finer intellects than men, although their brains are smaller; but then quality is more important than mere quantity. And yet,” I continued, “some people hold that women ought not to have the franchise, or suffrage, or whatever it is! Not that I care two straws about the question myself, and I only hope they’ll never get it; but then I think it is so illogical — don’t you?”

“I am afraid I do not understand you, Smith,” she returned, looking much distressed.

“Well, no, I suppose not, but what I said was of no consequence,” I replied; then, wishing to make a fresh start, I added: “But I am so glad to hear you call me Smith. It makes it so much more pleasant and homelike to be treated without formality. It is very kind of you, I’m sure.”

“But surely your name is Smith?” said she, looking very much surprised.

“Oh yes, my name is Smith: only of course — well, the tact is, I was just wondering what to call you.”

“My name is Edra,” she replied, looking more bewildered than ever; and from that moment the conversation, which had begun so favorably, was nothing but a series of entanglements, from which I could only escape in each case by breaking the threads of the subject under discussion, and introducing a new one.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hudson/william_henry/crystal_age/chapter6.html

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