A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 9

When I arrived at the house I was met by the young man who had set me the morning’s task; but he was taciturn now, and wore a cold, estranged look, which seemed to portend trouble. He at once led me to a part of the house at a distance from the hall, and into a large apartment I now saw for the first time. In a few moments the master of the house, followed by most of the other inmates, also entered, and on the faces of all of them I noticed the same cold, offended look.

“The dickens take my luck!” said I to myself, beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable. “I suppose I have offended against the laws and customs by working the horses too long.”

“Smith,” said the old man, advancing to the table, and depositing thereon a large volume he had brought with him, “come here, and read to me in this book.”

Advancing to the table, I saw that it was written in the same minute, Hebrew-like characters of the folio I had examined on the previous evening. “I cannot read it; I do not understand the letters,” I said, feeling some shame at having thus publicly to confess my ignorance.

“Then,” said he, bending on me a look of the utmost severity, “there is indeed little more to be said. Nevertheless, we take into account the confused state of your intellect yesterday, and judge you leniently; and let us hope that the pangs of an outraged conscience will be more painful to you than the light punishment I am about to inflict for so destestable a crime.”

I now concluded that I had offended by squeezing Yoletta’s hand, and had been told to read from the book merely to make myself acquainted with the pains and penalties attendant on such an indiscretion, for to call it a “detestable crime” seemed to me a very great abuse of language.

“If I have offended,” was my answer, delivered with little humility, “I can only plead my ignorance of the customs of the house.”

“No man,” he returned, with increased severity, “is so ignorant as not to know right from wrong. Had the matter come to my knowledge sooner, I should have said: Depart from us, for your continued presence in the house offends us; but we have made a compact with you, and, until the year expires, we must suffer you. For the space of sixty days you must dwell apart from us, never leaving the room, where each day a task will be assigned to you, and subsisting on bread and water only. Let us hope that in this period of solitude and silence you will sufficiently repent your crime, and rejoin us afterwards with a changed heart; for all offenses may be forgiven a man, but it is impossible to forgive a lie.”

“A lie!” I exclaimed in amazement. “I have told no lie!”

“This,” said he, with an access of wrath, “is an aggravation of your former offense. It is even a worse offense than the first, and must be dealt with separately — when the sixty days have expired.”

“Are you, then, going to condemn me without hearing me speak, or telling me anything about it? What lie have I told?”

After a pause, during which he closely scrutinized my face, he said, pointing to the open page before him: “Yesterday, in answer to my question, you told me that you could read. Last evening you made a contrary statement to Yoletta; and now here is the book, and you confess that you cannot read it.”

“But that is easily explained,” said I, immensely relieved, for I certainly had felt a little guilty about the hand-squeezing performance, although it was not a very serious matter. “I can read the books of my own country, and naturally concluded that your books were written in the same kind of letters; but last evening I discovered that it was not so. You have already seen the letters of my country on the coins I showed you last evening.”

And here I again pulled out my pocket-book, and emptied the contents on the table.

He began to pick up the sovereigns one by one to examine them. Meanwhile, finding my beautiful black and gold stylograph pen inserted in the book, I thought I could not do better than to show him how I wrote. Fortunately, the fluid in it had not become dry. Tearing a blank page from my book I hastily scribbled a few lines, and handed the paper to him, saying: “This is how I write.”

He began studying the paper, but his eyes, I perceived, wandered often to the stylograph pen in my hand.

Presently he remarked: “This writing, or these marks you have made on the paper, are not the same as the letters on the gold.”

I took the paper and proceeded to copy the sentence I had written, but in printing letters, beneath it, then returned it to him.

He examined it again, and, after comparing my letters with those on the sovereigns, said: “Pray tell me, now, what you have written here, and explain why you write in two different ways?”

I told him, as well as I could, why letters of one form were used to stamp on gold and other substances, and of a different form for writing. Then, with a modest blush, I read the words of the sentence: “In different parts of the world men have different customs, and write different letters; but alike to all men in all places, a lie is hateful.”

“Smith,” he said, addressing me in an impressive manner, but happily not to charge me with a third and bigger lie, “I have lived long in the world, and the knowledge others possess concerning it is mine also. It is common knowledge that in the hotter and colder regions men are compelled to live differently, owing to the conditions they are placed in; but we know that everywhere they have the same law of right and wrong inscribed on the heart, and, as you have said, hate a lie; also that they all speak the same language; and until this moment I also believed that they wrote in similar characters. You, however, have now succeeded in convincing me that this is not the case; that in some obscure valley, cut off from all intercourse by inaccessible mountains, or in some small, unknown island of the sea, a people may exist — ah, did you not tell me that you came from an island?”

“Yes, my home was on an island,” I answered.

“So I imagined. An island of which no report has ever reached us, where the people, isolated from their fellows, have in the course of many centuries changed their customs — even their manner of writing. Although I had seen these gold pieces I did not understand, or did not realize, that such a human family existed: now I am persuaded of it, and as I alone am to blame for having brought this charge against you, I must now ask your forgiveness. We rejoice at your innocence, and hope with increased love to atone for our injustice. My son,” he concluded, placing a hand on my shoulder, “I am now deeply in your debt.”

“I am glad it has ended so happily,” I replied, wondering whether his being in my debt would increase my chances with Yoletta or not.

Seeing him again directing curious glances at the stylograph, which I was turning about in my fingers, I offered it to him.

He examined it with interest.

“I have only been waiting for an opportunity,” he said, “to look closely at this wonderful contrivance, for I had perceived that your writing was not made with a pencil, but with a fluid. It is black polished stone, beautifully fashioned and encircled with gold bands, and contains the writing-fluid within itself. This surprises me as much as anything you have told me.”

“Allow me to make you a present of it,” said I, seeing him so taken with it.

“No, not so,” he returned. “But I should greatly like to possess it, and will keep it if I may bestow in return something you desire.”

Yoletta’s hand was really the only thing in life I desired, but it was too early to speak yet, as I knew nothing about their matrimonial usages — not even whether or not the lady’s consent was necessary to a compact of the kind. I therefore made a more modest request. “There is one thing I greatly desire,” I said. “I am very anxious to be able to read in your books, and shall consider myself more than compensated if you will permit Yoletta to teach me.”

“She shall teach you in any case, my son,” he returned. “That, and much more, is already owning to you.”

“There is nothing else I desire,” said I. “Pray keep the pen and make me happy.”

And thus ended a disagreeable matter.

The cloud having blown over, we all repaired to the supper-room, and nothing could exceed our happiness as we sat at meat — or vegetables. Not feeling so ravenously hungry as on the previous evening, and, moreover, seeing them all in so lively a mood, I did not hesitate to join in the conversation: nor did I succeed so very badly, considering the strangeness of it all; for like the bee that has been much hindered at his flowery work by geometric webs, I began to acquire some skill in pushing my way gracefully through the tangling meshes of thought and phrases that were new to me.

The afternoon’s experiences had certainly been remarkable — a strange mixture of pain and pleasure, not blending into homogeneous gray, but resembling rather a bright embroidery on a dark, somber ground; and of these surprising contrasts I was destined to have more that same evening.

We were again assembled in the great room, the venerable father reclining at his ease on his throne-like couch near the brass globes, while the others pursued their various occupations as on the former evening. Not being able to get near Yoletta, and having nothing to do, I settled myself comfortably in one of the spacious seats, and gave up my mind to pleasant dreams. At length, to my surprise, the father, who had been regarding me for some time, said: “Will you lead, my son?”

I started up, turning very red in the face, for I did not wish to trouble him with questions, yet was at a loss to know what he meant by leading. I thought of several things — whist, evening prayers, dancing, etc.; but being still in doubt, I was compelled to ask him to explain.

“Will you lead the singing?” he returned, looking a little surprised.

“Oh yes, with pleasure,” said I. There being no music about, and no piano, I concluded naturally that my friends amused themselves with solo songs without accompaniment of an evening, and having a good tenor voice I was not unwilling to lead off with a song. Clearing my rusty throat with a ghrr-ghrr-hram which made them all jump, I launched forth with the “Vicar of Bray” — a grand old song and a great favorite of mine. They all started when I commenced, exchanging glances, and casting astonished looks towards me; but it was getting so dusky in the room that I could not feel sure that my eyes were not deceiving me. Presently some that were near me began retiring to distant seats, and this distressed me so that it made me hoarse, and my singing became very bad indeed; but still I thought it best to go bravely on to the end. Suddenly the old gentleman, who had been staring wildly at me for some time, drew up his long yellow robe and wrapped it round his face and head. I glanced at Yoletta, sitting at some distance, and saw that she was holding her hands pressed to her ears.

I thought it about time to leave off then, and stopping abruptly in the middle of the fourth stanza I sat down, feeling extremely hot and uncomfortable. I was almost choking, and unable to utter a word. But there was no word for me to utter: it was, of course, for them to thank me for singing, or to say something; but not a word was spoken. Yoletta dropped her hands and resumed her work, while the old man slowly emerged with a somewhat frightened look from the wrappings; and then the long dead silence becoming unendurable, I remarked that I feared my singing was not to their taste. No reply was made; only the father, putting out one of his hands, touched a handle or key near him, whereupon one of the brass globes began slowly revolving. A low murmur of sound arose, and seemed to pass like a wave through the room, dying away in the distance, soon to be succeeded by another, and then another, each marked by an increase of power; and often as this solemn sound died away, faint flute-like notes were heard as if approaching, but still at a great distance, and in the ensuing wave of sound from the great globes they would cease to be distinguishable. Still the mysterious coming sounds continued at intervals to grow louder and clearer, joined by other tones as they progressed, now altogether bursting out in joyous chorus, then one purest liquid note soaring bird-like alone, but whether from voices or wind-instruments I was unable to tell, until the whole air about me was filled and palpitating with the strange, exquisite harmony, which passed onwards, the tones growing fewer and fainter by degrees until they almost died out of hearing in the opposite direction. That all were now taking part in the performance I became convinced by watching in turn different individuals, some of them having small, curiously-shaped instruments in their hands, but there was a blending of voices and a something like ventriloquism in the tones which made it impossible to distinguish the notes of any one person. Deeper, more sonorous tones now issued from the revolving globes, sometimes resembling in character the vox humana of an organ, and every time they rose to a certain pitch there were responsive sounds — not certainly from any of the performers — low, tremulous, and Aeolian in character, wandering over the entire room, as if walls and ceiling were honey-combed with sensitive musical cells, answering to the deeper vibrations. These floating aerial sounds also answered to the higher notes of some of the female singers, resembling soprano voices, brightened and spiritualized in a wonderful degree; and then the wide room would be filled with a mist, as it were, of this floating, formless melody, which seemed to come from invisible harpers hovering in the shadows above.

Lying back on my couch, listening with closed eyes to this mysterious, soul-stirring concert, I was affected to tears, and almost feared that I had been snatched away into some supra-mundane region inhabited by beings of an angelic or half-angelic order — feared, I say, for, with this new love in my heart, no elysium or starry abode could compare with this green earth for a dwellingplace. But when I remembered my own brutal bull of Bashan performance, my face, there in the dark, was on fire with shame; and I cursed the ignorant, presumptuous folly I had been guilty of in roaring out that abominable “Vicar of Bray” ballad, which had now become as hateful to me as my trousers or boots. The composer of that song, the writer of the words, and its subject, the double-faced Vicar himself, presented themselves to my mind as the three most damnable beings that had ever existed. “The devil take my luck!” I muttered, grinding my teeth with impotent anger; for it seemed such hard lines, just when I had succeeded in getting into favor, to go and spoil it all in that unhappy way. Now that I had become acquainted with their style of singing, the supposed fib, about which there had been such a pother, seemed a very venial offense compared with my attempt to lead the singing. Nevertheless, when the concert was over, not a word was said on the subject by any one, though I had quite expected to be taken at once to the magisterial chamber to hear some dreadful sentence passed on me; and when, before retiring, anxious to propitiate my host, I began to express regret for having inflicted pain on them by attempting to sing, the venerable gentleman raised his hands deprecatingly, and begged me to say no more about it, for painful subjects were best forgotten. “No doubt,” he kindly added, “when you were lying there buried among the hills, you swallowed a large amount of earth and gravel in your efforts to breathe, and have not yet freed your lungs from it.”

This was the most charitable view he could take of the matter, and I was thankful that no worse result followed.

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