A CRYSTAL AGE
BY W. H. HUDSON
Romances of the future, however fantastic they may be, have for most of us a perennial if mild interest, since they are born of a very common feeling—a sense of dissatisfaction with the existing order of things, combined with a vague faith in or hope of a better one to come. The picture put before us is false; we knew it would be false before looking at it, since we cannot imagine what is unknown any more than we can build without materials. Our mental atmosphere surrounds and shuts us in like our own skins; no one can boast that he has broken out of that prison. The vast, unbounded prospect lies before us, but, as the poet mournfully adds, "clouds and darkness rest upon it." Nevertheless we cannot suppress all curiosity, or help asking one another, What is your dream—your ideal? What is your News from Nowhere, or, rather, what is the result of the little shake your hand has given to the old pasteboard toy with a dozen bits of colored glass for contents? And, most important of all, can you present it in a narrative or romance which will enable me to pass an idle hour not disagreeably? How, for instance, does it compare in this respect with other prophetic books on the shelf?
I am not referring to living authors; least of all to that flamingo of letters who for the last decade or so has been a wonder to our island birds. For what could I say of him that is not known to every one—that he is the tallest of fowls, land or water, of a most singular shape, and has black-tipped crimson wings folded under his delicate rose-colored plumage? These other books referred to, written, let us say, from thirty or forty years to a century or two ago, amuse us in a way their poor dead authors never intended. Most amusing are the dead ones who take themselves seriously, whose books are pulpits quaintly carved and decorated with precious stones and silken canopies in which they stand and preach to or at their contemporaries.
In like manner, in going through this book of mine after so many years I am amused at the way it is colored by the little cults and crazes, and modes of thought of the 'eighties of the last century. They were so important then, and now, if remembered at all, they appear so trivial! It pleases me to be diverted in this way at "A Crystal Age"—to find, in fact, that I have not stood still while the world has been moving.
This criticism refers to the case, the habit, of the book rather than to its spirit, since when we write we do, as the red man thought, impart something of our souls to the paper, and it is probable that if I were to write a new dream of the future it would, though in some respects very different from this, still be a dream and picture of the human race in its forest period.
Alas that in this case the wish cannot induce belief! For now I remember another thing which Nature said—that earthly excellence can come in no way but one, and the ending of passion and strife is the beginning of decay. It is indeed a hard saying, and the hardest lesson we can learn of her without losing love and bidding good-by forever to hope.
W. H. H.
A CRYSTAL AGE
I do not quite know how it happened, my recollection of the whole matter ebbing in a somewhat clouded condition. I fancy I had gone somewhere on a botanizing expedition, but whether at home or abroad I don't know. At all events, I remember that I had taken up the study of plants with a good deal of enthusiasm, and that while hunting for some variety in the mountains I sat down to rest on the edge of a ravine. Perhaps it was on the ledge of an overhanging rock; anyhow, if I remember rightly, the ground gave way all about me, precipitating me below. The fall was a very considerable one—probably thirty or forty feet, or more, and I was rendered unconscious. How long I lay there under the heap of earth and stones carried down in my fall it is impossible to say: perhaps a long time; but at last I came to myself and struggled up from the debris, like a mole coming to the surface of the earth to feel the genial sunshine on his dim eyeballs. I found myself standing (oddly enough, on all fours) in an immense pit created by the overthrow of a gigantic dead tree with a girth of about thirty or forty feet. The tree itself had rolled down to the bottom of the ravine; but the pit in which it had left the huge stumps of severed roots was, I found, situated in a gentle slope at the top of the bank! How, then, I could have fallen seemingly so far from no height at all, puzzled me greatly: it looked as if the solid earth had been indulging in some curious transformation pranks during those moments or minutes of insensibility. Another singular circumstance was that I had a great mass of small fibrous rootlets tightly woven about my whole person, so that I was like a colossal basket-worm in its case, or a big man-shaped bottle covered with wicker-work. It appeared as if the roots had grown round me! Luckily they were quite sapless and brittle, and without bothering my brains too much about the matter, I set to work to rid myself of them. After stripping the woody covering off, I found that my tourist suit of rough Scotch homespun had not suffered much harm, although the cloth exuded a damp, moldy smell; also that my thick-soled climbing boots had assumed a cracked rusty appearance as if I had been engaged in some brick-field operations; while my felt hat was in such a discolored and battered condition that I felt almost ashamed to put it on my head. My watch was gone; perhaps I had not been wearing it, but my pocket-book in which I had my money was safe in my breast pocket.
Glad and grateful at having escaped with unbroken bones from such a dangerous accident, I set out walking along the edge of the ravine, which soon broadened to a valley running between two steep hills; and then, seeing water at the bottom and feeling very dry, I ran down the slope to get a drink. Lying flat on my chest to slake my thirst animal fashion, I was amazed at the reflection the water gave back of my face: it was, skin and hair, thickly encrusted with clay and rootlets! Having taken a long drink, I threw off my clothes to have a bath; and after splashing about for half an hour managed to rid my skin of its accumulations of dirt. While drying in the wind I shook the loose sand and clay from my garments, then dressed, and, feeling greatly refreshed, proceeded on my walk.
For an hour or so I followed the valley in its many windings, but, failing to see any dwelling-place, I ascended a hill to get a view of the surrounding country. The prospect which disclosed itself when I had got a couple of hundred feet above the surrounding level, appeared unfamiliar. The hills among which I had been wandering were now behind me; before me spread a wide rolling country, beyond which rose a mountain range resembling in the distance blue banked-up clouds with summits and peaks of pearly whiteness. Looking on this scene I could hardly refrain from shouting with joy, so glad did the sunlit expanse of earth, and the pure exhilarating mountain breeze, make me feel. The season was late summer—that was plain to see; the ground was moist, as if from recent showers, and the earth everywhere had that intense living greenness with which it reclothes itself when the greater heats are over; but the foliage of the woods was already beginning to be touched here and there with the yellow and russet hues of decay. A more tranquil and soul-satisfying scene could not be imagined: the dear old mother earth was looking her very best; while the shifting golden sunlight, the mysterious haze in the distance, and the glint of a wide stream not very far off, seemed to spiritualize her "happy autumn fields," and bring them into a closer kinship with the blue over-arching sky. There was one large house or mansion in sight, but no town, nor even a hamlet, and not one solitary spire. In vain I scanned the horizon, waiting impatiently to see the distant puff of white steam from some passing engine. This troubled me not a little, for I had no idea that I had drifted so far from civilization in my search for specimens, or whatever it was that brought me to this pretty, primitive wilderness. Not quite a wilderness, however, for there, within a short hour's walk of the hill, stood the one great stone mansion, close to the river I had mentioned. There were also horses and cows in sight, and a number of scattered sheep were grazing on the hillside beneath me.
Strange to relate, I met with a little misadventure on account of the sheep—an animal which one is accustomed to regard as of a timid and inoffensive nature. When I set out at a brisk pace to walk to the house I have spoken of, in order to make some inquiries there, a few of the sheep that happened to be near began to bleat loudly, as if alarmed, and by and by they came hurrying after me, apparently in a great state of excitement. I did not mind them much, but presently a pair of horses, attracted by their bleatings, also seemed struck at my appearance, and came at a swift gallop to within twenty yards of me. They were magnificent-looking brutes, evidently a pair of well-groomed carriage horses, for their coats, which were of a fine bronze color, sparkled wonderfully in the sunshine. In other respects they were very unlike carriage animals, for they had tails reaching to the ground, like funeral horses, and immense black leonine manes, which gave them a strikingly bold and somewhat formidable appearance. For some moments they stood with heads erect, gazing fixedly at me, and then simultaneously delivered a snort of defiance or astonishment, so loud and sudden that it startled me like the report of a gun. This tremendous equine blast brought yet another enemy on the field in the shape of a huge milk-white bull with long horns: a very noble kind of animal, but one which I always prefer to admire from behind a hedge, or at a distance through a field-glass. Fortunately his wrathful mutterings gave me timely notice of his approach, and without waiting to discover his intentions, I incontinently fled down the slope to the refuge of a grove or belt of trees clothing the lower portion of the hillside. Spent and panting from my run, I embraced a big tree, and turning to face the foe, found that I had not been followed: sheep, horses, and bull were all grouped together just where I had left them, apparently holding a consultation, or comparing notes.
The trees where I had sought shelter were old, and grew here and there, singly or in scattered groups: it was a pretty wilderness of mingled tree, shrub and flower. I was surprised to find here some very large and ancient-looking fig-trees, and numbers of wasps and flies were busy feeding on a few over-ripe figs on the higher branches. Honey-bees also roamed about everywhere, extracting sweets from the autumn bloom, and filling the sunny glades with a soft, monotonous murmur of sound. Walking on full of happy thoughts and a keen sense of the sweetness of life pervading me, I presently noticed that a multitude of small birds were gathering about me, flitting through the trees overhead and the bushes on either hand, but always keeping near me, apparently as much excited at my presence as if I had been a gigantic owl, or some such unnatural monster. Their increasing numbers and incessant excited chirping and chattering at first served to amuse, but in the end began to irritate me. I observed, too, that the alarm was spreading, and that larger birds, usually shy of men—pigeons, jays, and magpies, I fancied they were—now began to make their appearance. Could it be, thought I with some concern, that I had wandered into some uninhabited wilderness, to cause so great a commotion among the little feathered people? I very soon dismissed this as an idle thought, for one does not find houses, domestic animals, and fruit-trees in desert places. No, it was simply the inherent cantankerousness of little birds which caused them to annoy me. Looking about on the ground for something to throw at them, I found in the grass a freshly-fallen walnut, and, breaking the shell, I quickly ate the contents. Never had anything tasted so pleasant to me before! But it had a curious effect on me, for, whereas before eating it I had not felt hungry, I now seemed to be famishing, and began excitedly searching about for more nuts. They were lying everywhere in the greatest abundance; for, without knowing it, I had been walking through a grove composed in large part of old walnut-trees. Nut after nut was picked up and eagerly devoured, and I must have eaten four or five dozen before my ravenous appetite was thoroughly appeased. During this feast I had paid no attention to the birds, but when my hunger was over I began again to feel annoyed at their trivial persecutions, and so continued to gather the fallen nuts to throw at them. It amused and piqued me at the same time to see how wide of the mark my missiles went. I could hardly have hit a haystack at a distance of ten yards. After half an hour's vigorous practice my right hand began to recover its lost cunning, and I was at last greatly delighted when of my nuts went hissing like a bullet through the leaves, not further than a yard from the wren, or whatever the little beggar was, I had aimed at. Their Impertinences did not like this at all; they began to find out that I was a rather dangerous person to meddle with: their ranks were broken, they became demoralized and scattered, in all directions, and I was finally left master of the field.
"Dolt that I am," I suddenly exclaimed, "to be fooling away my time when the nearest railway station or hotel is perhaps twenty miles away."
I hurried on, but when I got to the end of the grove, on the green sward near some laurel and juniper bushes, I came on an excavation apparently just made, the loose earth which had been dug out looking quite fresh and moist. The hole or foss was narrow, about five feet deep and seven feet long, and looked, I imagined, curiously like a grave. A few yards away was a pile of dry brushwood, and some faggots bound together with ropes of straw, all apparently freshly cut from the neighboring bushes. As I stood there, wondering what these things meant, I happened to glance away in the direction of the house where I intended to call, which was not now visible owing to an intervening grove of tall trees, and was surprised to discover a troop of about fifteen persons advancing along the valley in my direction. Before them marched a tall white-bearded old man; next came eight men, bearing a platform on their shoulders with some heavy burden resting upon it; and behind these followed the others. I began to think that they were actually carrying a corpse, with the intention of giving it burial in that very pit beside which I was standing; and, although it looked most unlike a funeral, for no person in the procession wore black, the thought strengthened to a conviction when I became able to distinguish a recumbent, human-like form in a shroud-like covering on the platform. It seemed altogether a very unusual proceeding, and made me feel extremely uncomfortable; so much so that I considered it prudent to step back behind the bushes, where I could watch the doings of the processionists without being observed.
Led by the old man—who carried, suspended by thin chains, a large bronze censer, or brazier rather, which sent out a thin continuous wreath of smoke—they came straight on to the pit; and after depositing their burden on the grass, remained standing for some minutes, apparently to rest after their walk, all conversing together, but in subdued tones, so that I could not catch their words, although standing within fifteen yards of the grave. The uncoffined corpse, which seemed that of a full-grown man, was covered with a white cloth, and rested on a thick straw mat, provided with handles along the sides. On these things, however, I bestowed but a hasty glance, so profoundly absorbed had I become in watching the group of living human beings before me; for they were certainly utterly unlike any fellow-creatures I had ever encountered before. The old man was tall and spare, and from his snowy-white majestic beard I took him to be about seventy years old; but he was straight as an arrow, and his free movements and elastic tread were those of a much younger man. His head was adorned with a dark red skull-cap, and he wore a robe covering the whole body and reaching to the ankles, of a deep yellow or rhubarb color; but his long wide sleeves under his robe were dark red, embroidered with yellow flowers. The other men had no covering on their heads, and their luxuriant hair, worn to the shoulders, was, in most cases, very dark. Their garments were also made in a different fashion, and consisted of a kilt-like dress, which came half-way to the knees, a pale yellow shirt fitting tight to the skin, and over it a loose sleeveless vest. The entire legs were cased in stockings, curious in pattern and color. The women wore garments resembling those of the men, but the tight-fitting sleeves reached only half-way to the elbow, the rest of the arm being bare; and the outergarment was all in one piece, resembling a long sleeveless jacket, reaching below the hips. The color of their dresses varied, but in most cases different shades of blue and subdued yellow predominated. In all, the stockings showed deeper and richer shades of color than the other garments; and in their curiously segmented appearance, and in the harmonious arrangement of the tints, they seemed to represent the skins of pythons and other beautifully variegated serpents. All wore low shoes of an orange-brown color, fitting closely so as to display the shape of the foot.
From the moment of first seeing them I had had no doubt about the sex of the tall old leader of the procession, his shining white beard being as conspicuous at a distance as a shield or a banner; but looking at the others I was at first puzzled to know whether the party was composed of men or women, or of both, so much did they resemble each other in height, in their smooth faces, and in the length of their hair. On a closer inspection I noticed the difference of dress of the sexes; also that the men, if not sterner, had faces at all events less mild and soft in expression than the women, and also a slight perceptible down on the cheeks and upper lip.
After a first hasty survey of the group in general, I had eyes for only one person in it—a fine graceful girl about fourteen years old, and the youngest by far of the party. A description of this girl will give some idea, albeit a very poor one, of the faces and general appearance of this strange people I had stumbled on. Her dress, if a garment so brief can be called a dress, showed a slaty-blue pattern on a straw-colored ground, while her stockings were darker shades of the same colors. Her eyes, at the distance I stood from her, appeared black, or nearly black, but when seen closely they proved to be green—a wonderfully pure, tender sea-green; and the others, I found, had eyes of the same hue. Her hair fell to her shoulders; but it was very wavy or curly, and strayed in small tendril-like tresses over her neck, forehead and cheeks; in color it was golden black—that is, black in shade, but when touched with sunlight every hair became a thread of shining red-gold; and in some lights it looked like raven-black hair powdered with gold-dust. As to her features, the forehead was broader and lower, the nose larger, and the lips more slender, than in our most beautiful female types. The color was also different, the delicately molded mouth being purple-red instead of the approved cherry or coral hue; while the complexion was a clear dark, and the color, which mantled the cheeks in moments of excitement, was a dim or dusky rather than a rosy red.
The exquisite form and face of this young girl, from the first moment of seeing her, produced a very deep impression; and I continued watching her every movement and gesture with an intense, even a passionate interest. She had a quantity of flowers in her hand; but these sweet emblems, I observed, were all gayly colored, which seemed strange, for in most places white flowers are used in funeral ceremonies. Some of the men who had followed the body carried in their hands broad, three-cornered bronze shovels, with short black handles, and these they had dropped upon the grass on arriving at the grave. Presently the old man stooped and drew the covering back from the dead one's face—a rigid, marble-white face set in a loose mass of black hair. The others gathered round, and some standing, others kneeling, bent on the still countenance before them a long earnest gaze, as if taking an eternal farewell of one they had deeply loved. At this moment the the beautiful girl I have described all at once threw herself with a sobbing cry on her knees before the corpse, and, stooping, kissed the face with passionate grief. "Oh, my beloved, must we now leave you alone forever!" she cried between the sobs that shook her whole frame. "Oh, my love—my love—my love, will you come back to us no more!"
The others all appeared deeply affected at her grief, and presently a young man standing by raised her from the ground and drew her gently against his side, where for some minutes she continued convulsively weeping. Some of the other men now passed ropes through the handles of the straw mat on which the corpse rested, and raising it from the platform lowered it into the foss. Each person in turn then advanced and dropped some flowers into the grave, uttering the one word "Farewell" as they did so; after which the loose earth was shoveled in with the bronze implements. Over the mound the hurdle on which the straw mat had rested was then placed, the dry brushwood and faggots heaped over it and ignited with a coal from the brazier. White smoke and crackling flames issued anon from the pile, and in a few moments the whole was in a fierce blaze.
Standing around they all waited in silence until the fire had burnt itself out; then the old man advancing stretched his arms above the white and still smoking ashes and cried in a loud voice: "Farewell forever, O well beloved son! With deep sorrow and tears we have given you back to Earth; but not until she has made the sweet grass and flowers grow again on this spot, scorched and made desolate with fire, shall our hearts be healed of their wound and forget their grief."
The thrilling, pathetic tone in which these words were uttered affected me not a little; and when the ceremony was over I continued staring vacantly at the speaker, ignorant of the fact that the beautiful young girl had her wide-open, startled eyes fixed on the bush which, I vainly imagined, concealed me from view.
All at once she cried out: "Oh, father, look there! Who is that strange-looking man watching us from behind the bushes?"
They all turned, and then I felt that fourteen or fifteen pairs of very keen eyes were on me, seeing me very plainly indeed, for in my curiosity and excitement I had come out from the thicker bushes to place myself behind a ragged, almost leafless shrub, which afforded the merest apology for a shelter. Putting a bold face on the matter, although I did not feel very easy, I came out and advanced to them, removing my battered old hat on the way, and bowing repeatedly to the assembled company. My courteous salutation was not returned; but all, with increasing astonishment pictured on their faces, continued staring at me as if they were looking on some grotesque apparition. Thinking it best to give an account of myself at once, and to apologize for intruding on their mysteries, I addressed myself to the old man:
"I really beg your pardon," I said, "for having disturbed you at such an inconvenient time, and while you are engaged in these—these solemn rites; but I assure you, sir, it has been quite accidental. I happened to be walking here when I saw you coming, and thought it best to step out of the way until—well, until the funeral was over. The fact is, I met with a serious accident in the mountains over there. I fell down into a ravine, and a great heap of earth and stones fell on and stunned me, and I do not know how long I lay there before I recovered my senses. I daresay I am trespassing, but I am a perfect stranger here, and quite lost, and—and perhaps a little confused after my fall, and perhaps you will kindly tell me where to go to get some refreshment, and find out where I am."
"Your story is a very strange one," said the old man in reply, after a pause of considerable duration. "That you are a perfect stranger in this place is evident from your appearance, your uncouth dress, and your thick speech."
His words made me blush hotly, although I should not have minded his very personal remarks much if that beautiful girl had not been standing there listening to everything. My uncouth garments, by the way, were made by a fashionable West End tailor, and fitted me perfectly, although just now they were, of course, very dirty. It was also a surprise to hear that I had a thick speech, since I had always been considered a remarkably clear speaker and good singer, and had frequently both sung and recited in public, at amateur entertainments.
After a distressing interval of silence, during which they all continued regarding me with unabated curiosity, the old gentleman condescended to address me again and asked me my name and country.
"My country," said I, with the natural pride of a Briton, "is England, and my name is Smith."
"No such country is known to me," he returned; "nor have I ever heard such a name as yours."
I was rather taken aback at his words, and yet did not just then by any means realize their full import. I was thinking only about my name; for without having penetrated into any perfectly savage country, I had been about the world a great deal for a young man, visiting the Colonies, India, Yokohama, and other distant places, and I had never yet been told that the name of Smith was an unfamiliar one.
"I hardly know what to say," I returned, for he was evidently waiting for me to add something more to what I had stated. "It rather staggers me to hear that my name-well, you have not heard of me, of course, but there have been a great many distinguished men of the same name: Sydney Smith, for instance, and—and several others." It mortified me just then to find that I had forgotten all the other distinguished Smiths.
He shook his head, and continued watching my face.
"Not heard of them!" I exclaimed. "Well, I suppose you have heard of some of my great countrymen: Beaconsfield, Gladstone, Darwin, Burne-Jones, Ruskin, Queen Victoria, Tennyson, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, General Gordon, Lord Randolph Churchill—"
As he continued to shake his head after each name I at length paused.
"Who are all these people you have named?" he asked.
"They are all great and illustrious men and women who have a world-wide reputation," I answered.
"And are there no more of them—have you told me the names of all the great people you have ever known or heard of?" he said, with a curious smile.
"No, indeed," I answered, nettled at his words and manner. "It would take me until to-morrow to name all the great men I have ever heard of. I suppose you have heard the names of Napoleon, Wellington, Nelson, Dante, Luther, Calvin, Bismarck, Voltaire?"
He still shook his head.
"Well, then," I continued, "Homer, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Confucius, Zoroaster, Plato, Shakespeare." Then, growing thoroughly desperate, I added in a burst: "Noah, Moses, Columbus, Hannibal, Adam and Eve!"
"I am quite sure that I have never heard of any of these names," he answered, still with that curious smile. "Nevertheless I can understand your surprise. It sometimes happens that the mind, owing an an imperfect adjustment of its faculties, resembles the uneducated vision in its method of judgment, regarding the things which are near as great and important, and those further away as less important, according to their distance. In such a case the individuals one hears about or associates with, come to be looked upon as the great and illustrious beings of the world, and all men in all places are expected to be familiar with their names. But come, my children, our sorrowful task is over, let us now return to the house. Come with us, Smith, and you shall have the refreshment you require."
I was, of course, pleased with the invitation, but did not relish being addressed as "Smith," like some mere laborer or other common person tramping about the country.
The long disconcerting scrutiny I had been subjected to had naturally made me very uncomfortable, and caused me to drop a little behind the others as we walked towards the house. The old man, however, still kept at my side; but whether from motives of courtesy, or because he wished to badger me a little more about my uncouth appearance and defective intellect, I was not sure. I was not anxious to continue the conversation, which had not proved very satisfactory; moreover, the beautiful girl I have already mentioned so frequently, was now walking just before me, hand in hand with the young man who had raised her from the ground. I was absorbed in admiration of her graceful figure, and—shall I be forgiven for mentioning such a detail?—her exquisitely rounded legs under her brief and beautiful garments. To my mind the garment was quite long enough. Every time I spoke, for my companion still maintained the conversation and I was obliged to reply, she hung back a little to catch my words. At such times she would also turn her pretty head partially round so as to see me: then her glances, beginning at my face, would wander down to my legs, and her lips would twitch and curl a little, seeming to express disgust and amusement at the same time. I was beginning to hate my legs, or rather my trousers, for I considered that under them I had as good a pair of calves as any man in the company.
Presently I thought of something to say, something very simple, which my dignified old friend would be able to answer without intimating that he considered me a wild man of the woods or an escaped lunatic.
"Can you tell me," I said pleasantly, "what is the name of your nearest town or city? how far it is from this place, and how I can get there?"
At this question, or series of questions, the young girl turned quite round, and, waiting until I was even with her, she continued her walk at my side, although still holding her companion's hand.
The old man looked at me with a grave smile—that smile was fast becoming intolerable—and said: "Are you so fond of honey, Smith? You shall have as much as you require without disturbing the bees. They are now taking advantage of this second spring to lay by a sufficient provision before winter sets in."
After pondering some time over these enigmatical words, I said: "I daresay we are at cross purposes again. I mean," I added hurriedly, seeing the inquiring look on his face, "that we do not exactly understand each other, for the subject of honey was not in my thoughts."
"What, then, do you mean by a city?" he asked.
"What do I mean? Why, a city, I take it, is nothing more than a collection or congeries of houses—hundreds and thousands, or hundreds of thousands of houses, all built close together, where one can live very comfortably for years without seeing a blade of grass."
"I am afraid," he returned, "that the accident you met with in the mountains must have caused some injury to your brain; for I cannot in any other way account for these strange fantasies."
"Do you mean seriously to tell me, sir, that you have never even heard of the existence of a city, where millions of human beings live crowded together in a small space? Of course I mean a small space comparatively; for in some cities you might walk all day without getting into the fields; and a city like that might be compared to a beehive so large that a bee might fly in a straight line all day without getting out of it."
It struck me the moment I finished speaking that this comparison was not quite right somehow; but he did not ask me to explain: he had evidently ceased to pay any attention to what I said. The girl looked at me with an expression of pity, not to say contempt, and I felt at the same time ashamed and vexed. This served to rouse a kind of dogged spirit in me, and I returned to the subject once more.
"Surely," I said, "you have heard of such cities as Paris, Vienna, Rome, Athens, Babylon, Jerusalem?"
He only shook his head, and walked on in silence.
"And London! London is the capital of England. Why," I exclaimed, beginning to see light, and wondering at myself for not having seen it sooner, "you are at present talking to me in the English language."
"I fail to understand your meaning, and am even inclined to doubt that you have any," said he, a little ruffled. "I am addressing you in the language of human beings—that is all."
"Well, it seems awfully puzzling," said I; "but I hope you don't think I have been indulging in—well, tarradiddles." Then, seeing that I was making matters no clearer, I added: "I mean that I have not been telling untruths."
"I could not think that," he answered sternly. "It would indeed be a clouded mind which could mistake mere disordered fancies for willful offenses against the truth. I have no doubt that when you have recovered from the effects of your late accident these vain thoughts and imaginations will cease to trouble you."
"And in the meantime, perhaps, I had better say as little as possible," said I, with considerable temper. "At present we do not seem able to understand each other at all."
"You are right, we do not," he said; and then added with a grave smile, "although I must allow that this last remark of yours is quite intelligible."
"I'm glad of that," I returned. "It is distressing to talk and not to be understood; it is like men calling to each other in a high wind, hearing voices but not able to distinguish words."
"Again I understand you," said he approvingly; while the beautiful girl bestowed on me the coveted reward of a smile, which had no pity or contempt in it.
"I think," I continued, determined to follow up this new train of ideas on which I had so luckily stumbled, "that we are not so far apart in mind after all. About some things we stand quite away from each other, like the widely diverging branches of a tree; but, like the branches, we have a meeting-place, and this is, I fancy, in that part of our nature where our feelings are. My accident in the hills has not disarranged that part of me, I am sure, and I can give you an instance. A little while ago when I was standing behind the bushes watching you all, I saw this young lady——"
Here a look of surprise and inquiry from the girl warned me that I was once more plunging into obscurity.
"When I saw you," I continued, somewhat amused at her manner, "cast yourself on the earth to kiss the cold face of one you had loved in life, I felt the tears of sympathy come to my own eyes."
"Oh, how strange!" she exclaimed, flashing on me a glance from her green, mysterious eyes; and then, to increase my wonder and delight, she deliberately placed her hand in mine.
"And yet not strange," said the old man, by way of comment on her words.
"It seemed strange to Yoletta that one so unlike us outwardly should be so like us in heart," remarked the young man at her side.
There was something about this speech which I did not altogether like, though I could not detect anything like sarcasm in the tone of the speaker.
"And yet," continued the lovely girl, "you never saw him living—never heard his sweet voice, which still seems to come back to me like a melody from the distance."
"Was he your father?" I asked.
The question seemed to surprise her very much. "He is our father," she returned, with a glance at the old gentleman, which seemed strange, for he certainly looked aged enough to be her great-grandfather.
He smiled and said: "You forget, my daughter, that I am as little known to this stranger to our country as all the great and illustrious personages he has mentioned are to us."
At this point I began to lose interest in the conversation. It was enough for me to feel that I held that precious hand in mine, and presently I felt tempted to administer a gentle squeeze. She looked at me and smiled, then glanced over my whole person, the survey finishing at my boots, which seemed to have a disagreeable fascination for her. She shivered slightly, and withdrew her hand from mine, and in my heart I cursed those rusty, thick-soled monstrosities in which my feet were cased. However, we were all on a better footing now; and I resolved for the future to avoid all dangerous topics, historical and geographical, and confine myself to subjects relating to the emotional side of our natures.
At the end our way to the house was over a green turf, among great trees as in a park; and as there was no road or path, the first sight of the building seen near, when we emerged from the trees, came as a surprise. There were no gardens, lawns, inclosures or hedges near it, nor cultivation of any kind. It was like a wilderness, and the house produced the effect of a noble ruin. It was a hilly stone country where masses of stone cropped out here and there among the woods and on the green slopes, and it appeared that the house had been raised on the natural foundation of one of these rocks standing a little above the river that flowed behind it. The stone was gray, tinged with red, and the whole rock, covering an acre or so of ground, had been worn or hewn down to form a vast platform which stood about a dozen feet above the surrounding green level. The sloping and buttressed sides of the platform were clothed with ivy, wild shrubs, and various flowering plants. Broad, shallow steps led up to the house, which was all of the same material—reddish-gray stone; and the main entrance was beneath a lofty portico, the sculptured entablature of which was supported by sixteen huge caryatides, standing on round massive pedestals. The building was not high as a castle or cathedral; it was a dwelling-place, and had but one floor, and resembled a ruin to my eyes because of the extreme antiquity of its appearance, the weather-worn condition and massiveness of the sculptured surfaces, and the masses of ancient ivy covering it in places. On the central portion of the building rested a great dome-shaped roof, resembling ground glass of a pale reddish tint, producing the effect of a cloud resting on the stony summit of a hill.
I remained standing on the grass about thirty yards from the first steps after the others had gone in, all but the old gentleman, who still kept with me. By-and-by, withdrawing to a stone bench under an oak-tree, he motioned to me to take a seat by his side. He said nothing, but appeared to be quietly enjoying my undisguised surprise and admiration.
"A noble mansion!" I remarked at length to my venerable host, feeling, Englishman-like, a sudden great access of respect towards the owner of a big house. Men in such a position can afford to be as eccentric as they like, even to the wearing of Carnivalesque garments, burying their friends or relations in a park, and shaking their heads over such names as Smith or Shakespeare. "A glorious place! It must have cost a pot of money, and taken a long time to build."
"What you mean by a pot of money I do not know," said he. "When you add a long time to build, I am also puzzled to understand you. For are not all houses, like the forest of trees, the human race, the world we live in, eternal?"
"If they stand forever they are so in one sense, I suppose," I answered, beginning to fear that I had already unfortunately broken the rule I had so recently laid down for my own guidance. "But the trees of the forest, to which you compare a house, spring from seed, do they not? and so have a beginning. Their end also, like the end of man, is to die and return to the dust."
"That is true," he returned; "it is, moreover, a truth which I do not now hear for the first time; but it has no connection with the subject we are discussing. Men pass away, and others take their places. Trees also decay, but the forest does not die, or suffer for the loss of individual trees; is it not the same with the house and the family inhabiting it, which is one with the house, and endures forever, albeit the members composing it must all in time return to the dust?"
"Is there no decay, then, of the materials composing a house?"
"Assuredly there is! Even the hardest stone is worn in time by the elements, or by the footsteps of many generations of men; but the stone that decays is removed, and the house does not suffer."
"I have never looked at it quite in this light before," said I. "But surely we can build a house whenever we wish!"
"Build a house whenever we wish!" he repeated, with that astonished look which threatened to become the permanent expression of his face—so long as he had me to talk with, at any rate.
"Yes, or pull one down if we find it unsuitable—" But his look of horror here made me pause, and to finish the sentence I added: "Of course, you must admit that a house had a beginning?"
"Yes; and so had the forest, the mountain, the human race, the world itself. But the origin of all these things is covered with the mists of time."
"Does it never happen, then, that a house, however substantially built—"
"However what! But never mind; you continue to speak in riddles. Pray, finish what you were saying."
"Does it never happen that a house is overthrown by some natural force—by floods, or subsidence of the earth, or is destroyed by lightning or fire?"
"No!" he answered, with such tremendous emphasis that he almost made me jump from my seat. "Are you alone so ignorant of these things that you speak of building and of pulling down a house?"
"Well, I fancied I knew a lot of things once," I answered, with a sigh. "But perhaps I was mistaken—people often are. I should like to hear you say something more about all these things—I mean about the house and the family, and the rest of it."
"Are you not, then, able to read—have you been taught absolutely nothing?"
"Oh yes, certainly I can read," I answered, joyfully seizing at once on the suggestion, which seemed to open a simple, pleasant way of escape from the difficulty. "I am by no means a studious person; perhaps I am never so happy as when I have nothing to read. Nevertheless, I do occasionally look into books, and greatly appreciate their gentle, kindly ways. They never shut themselves up with a sound like a slap, or throw themselves at your head for a duffer, but seem silently grateful for being read, even by a stupid person, and teach you very patiently, like a pretty, meek-spirited young girl."
"I am very pleased to hear it," said he. "You shall read and learn all these things for yourself, which is the best method. Or perhaps I ought rather to say, you shall by reading recall them to your mind, for it is impossible to believe that it has always been in its present pitiable condition. I can only attribute such a mental state, with its disordered fancies about cities, or immense hives of human beings, and other things equally frightful to contemplate, and its absolute vacancy concerning ordinary matters of knowledge, to the grave accident you met with in the hills. Doubtless in falling your head was struck and injured by a stone. Let us hope that you will soon recover possession of your memory and other faculties. And now let us repair to the eating-room, for it is best to refresh the body first, and the mind afterwards."
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.
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.
When he was gone, and Yoletta had followed, leaving some of the others still studying those wretched sovereigns, I sat down again and rested my chin on my hand; for I was now thinking—deeply: thinking on the terms of the agreement. "I daresay I have succeeded in making a precious ass of myself," was the mental reflection that occurred to me—one I had not infrequently made, and, what is more, been justified in making on former occasions. Then, remembering that I had come to supper with an extravagant appetite, it struck me that my host, quietly observant, had, when proposing terms, taken into account the quantity of food necessary for my sustenance. I regretted too late that I had not exercised more restraint; but the hungry man does not and cannot consider consequences, else a certain hairy gentleman who figures in ancient history had never lent himself to that nefarious compact, which gave so great an advantage to a younger but sleek and well-nourished brother. In spite of all this, I felt a secret satisfaction in the thought of the clothes, and it was also good to know that the nature of the work I had undertaken would not lower my status in the house.
Occupied with these reflections, I had failed to observe that the company had gradually been drifting away until but one person was left with me—the young man who had talked with me before. On his invitation I now rose, put by my money, and followed him. Returning by the hall we went through a passage and entered a room of vast extent, which in its form and great length and high arched roof was like the nave of a cathedral. And yet how unlike in that something ethereal in its aspect, as of a nave in a cloud cathedral, its far-stretching shining floors and walls and columns, pure white and pearl-gray, faintly touched with colors of exquisite delicacy. And over it all was the roof of white or pale gray glass tinged with golden-red—the roof which I had seen from the outside when it seemed to me like a cloud resting on the stony summit of a hill.
On coming in I had the impression of an empty, silent place; yet the inmates of the house were all there; they were sitting and reclining on low couches, some lying at their ease on straw mats on the floor; some were reading, others were occupied with some work in their hands, and some were conversing, the sound coming to me like a faint murmur from a distance.
At one side, somewhere about the center of the room, there was a broad raised place, or dais, with a couch on it, on which the father was reclining at his ease. Beside the couch stood a lectern on which a large volume rested, and before him there was a brass box or cabinet, and behind the couch seven polished brass globes were ranged, suspended on axles resting on bronze frames. These globes varied in size, the largest being not less than about twelve feet in circumference.
I noticed that there were books on a low stand near me. They were all folios, very much alike in form and thickness; and seeing presently that the others were all following their own inclinations, and considering that I had been left to my own resources and that it is a good plan when at Rome to do as the Romans do, I by-and-by ventured to help myself to a volume, which I carried to one of the reading-stands.
Books are grand things—sometimes, thought I, prepared to follow the advice I had received, and find out by reading all about the customs of this people, especially their ideas concerning The House, which appeared to be an object of almost religious regard with them. This would make me quite independent, and teach me how to avoid blundering in the future, or giving expression to any more "extraordinary delusions." On opening the volume I was greatly surprised to find that it was richly illuminated on every leaf, the middle only of each page being occupied with a rather narrow strip of writing; but the minute letters, resembling Hebrew characters, were incomprehensible to me. I bore the disappointment very cheerfully, I must say, for I am not over-fond of study; and, besides, I could not have paid proper attention to the text, surrounded with all that distracting beauty of graceful design and brilliant coloring.
After a while Yoletta came slowly across the room, her fingers engaged with some kind of wool-work as she walked, and my heart beat fast when she paused by my side.
"You are not reading," she said, looking curiously at me. "I have been watching you for some time."
"Have you indeed?" said I, not knowing whether to feel flattered or not. "No, unfortunately, I can't read this book, as I do not understand the letters. But what a wonderfully beautiful book it is! I was just thinking what some of the great London book-buyers—Quaritch, for instance—would be tempted to give for it. Oh, I am forgetting—you have never heard his name, of course; but—but what a beautiful book it is!"
She said nothing in reply, and only looked a little surprised—disgusted, I feared—at my ignorance, then walked away. I had hoped that she was going to talk to me, and with keen disappointment watched her moving across the floor. All the glory seemed now to have gone out of the leaves of the volume, and I continued turning them over listlessly, glancing at intervals at the beautiful girl, who was also like one of the pages before me, wonderful to look at and hard to understand. In a distant part of the room I saw her place some cushions on the floor, and settle herself on them to do her work.
The sun had set by this time, and the interior was growing darker by degrees; the fading light, however, seemed to make no difference to those who worked or read. They appeared to be gifted with an owlish vision, able to see with very little light. The father alone did nothing, but still rested on his couch, perhaps indulging in a postprandial nap. At length he roused himself and looked around him.
"There is no melody in our hearts this evening, my children," he said. "When another day has passed over us it will perhaps be different. To-night the voice so recently stilled in death forever would be too painfully missed by all of us."
Some one then rose and brought a tall wax taper and placed it near him. The flame threw a little brightness on the volume, which he now proceeded to open; and here and there, further away, it flashed and trembled in points of rainbow-colored light on a tall column; but the greater part of the room still remained in twilight obscurity.
He began to read aloud, and, although he did not seem to raise his voice above its usual pitch, the words he uttered fell on my ears with a distinctness and purity of sound which made them seem like a melody "sweetly played in tune." The words he read related to life and death, and such solemn matters; but to my mind his theology seemed somewhat fantastical, although it is right to confess that I am no judge of such matters. There was also a great deal about the house, which did not enlighten me much, being too rhapsodical, and when he spoke about our conduct and aims in life, and things of that kind, I understood him little better. Here is a part of his discourse:—
"It is natural to grieve for those that die, because light and knowledge and love and joy are no longer theirs; but they grieve not any more, being now asleep on the lap of the Universal Mother, the bride of the Father, who is with us, sharing our sorrow, which was his first; but it dims not his everlasting brightness; and his desire and our glory is that we should always and in all things resemble him.
"The end of every day is darkness, but the Father of life through our reason has taught us to mitigate the exceeding bitterness of our end; otherwise, we that are above all other creatures in the earth should have been at the last more miserable than they. For in the irrational world, between the different kinds, there reigns perpetual strife and bloodshed, the strong devouring the weak and the incapable; and when failure of life clouds the brightness of that lower soul, which is theirs, the end is not long delayed. Thus the life that has lasted many days goes out with a brief pang, and in its going gives new vigor to the strong that have yet many days to live. Thus also does the ever-living earth from the dust of dead generations of leaves re-make a fresh foliage, and for herself a new garment.
"We only, of all things having life, being like the Father, slay not nor are slain, and are without enemies in the earth; for even the lower kinds, which have not reason, know without reason that we are highest on the earth, and see in us, alone of all his works, the majesty of the Father, and lose all their rage in our presence. Therefore, when the night is near, when life is a burden and we remember our mortality, we hasten the end, that those we love may cease to sorrow at the sight of our decline; and we know that this is his will who called us into being, and gave us life and joy on the earth for a season, but not forever.
"It is better to lay down the life that is ours, to leave all things—the love of our kindred; the beauty of the world and of the house; the labor in which we take delight, to go forth and be no more; but the bitterness endures not, and is scarcely tasted when in our last moments we remember that our labor has borne fruit; that the letters we have written perish not with us, but remain as a testimony and a joy to succeeding generations, and live in the house forever.
"For the house is the image of the world, and we that live and labor in it are the image of our Father who made the world; and, like him, we labor to make for ourselves a worthy habitation, which shall not shame our teacher. This is his desire; for in all his works, and that knowledge which is like pure water to one that thirsts, and satisfies and leaves no taste of bitterness on the palate, we learn the will of him that called us into life. All the knowledge we seek, the invention and skill we possess, and the labor of our hands, has this purpose only: for all knowledge and invention and labor having any other purpose whatsoever is empty and vain in comparison, and unworthy of those that are made in the image of the Father of life. For just as the bodily senses may become perverted, and the taste lose its discrimination, so that the hungry man will devour acrid fruits and poisonous herbs for aliment, so is the mind capable of seeking out new paths, and a knowledge which leads only to misery and destruction.
"Thus we know that in the past men sought after knowledge of various kinds, asking not whether it was for good or for evil: but every offense of the mind and the body has its appropriate reward; and while their knowledge grew apace, that better knowledge and discrimination which the Father gives to every living soul, both in man and in beast, was taken from them. Thus by increasing their riches they were made poorer; and, like one who, forgetting the limits that are set to his faculties, gazes steadfastly on the sun, by seeing much they become afflicted with blindness. But they know not their poverty and blindness, and were not satisfied; but were like shipwrecked men on a lonely and barren rock in the midst of the sea, who are consumed with thirst, and drink of no sweet spring, but of the bitter wave, and thirst, and drink again, until madness possesses their brains, and death releases them from their misery. Thus did they thirst, and drink again, and were crazed; being inflamed with the desire to learn the secrets of nature, hesitating not to dip their hands in blood, seeking in the living tissues of animals for the hidden springs of life. For in their madness they hoped by knowledge to gain absolute dominion over nature, thereby taking from the Father of the world his prerogative.
"But their vain ambition lasted not, and the end of it was death. The madness of their minds preyed on their bodies, and worms were bred in their corrupted flesh: and these, after feeding on their tissues, changed their forms; and becoming winged, flew out in the breath of their nostrils, like clouds of winged ants that issue in the springtime from their breeding-places; and, flying from body to body, filled the race of men in all places with corruption and decay; and the Mother of men was thus avenged of her children for their pride and folly, for they perished miserably, devoured of worms.
"Of the human race only a small remnant survived, these being men of an humble mind, who had lived apart and unknown to their fellows; and after long centuries they went forth into the wilderness of earth and repeopled it; but nowhere did they find any trace or record of those that had passed away; for earth had covered all their ruined works with her dark mold and green forests, even as a man hides unsightly scars on his body with a new and beautiful garment. Nor is it known to us when this destruction fell upon the race of men; we only know that the history thereof was graven an hundred centuries ago on the granite pillars of the House of Evor, on the plains between the sea and the snow-covered mountains of Elf. Thither in past ages some of our pilgrims journeyed, and have brought a record of these things; nor in our house only are they known, but in many houses throughout the world have they been written for the instruction of all men and a warning for all time.
"But to mankind there shall come no second darkness of error, nor seeking after vain knowledge; and in the Father's House there shall be no second desolation, but the sounds of joy and melody, which were silent, shall be heard everlastingly; since we had now continued long in this even mind, seeking only to inform ourselves of his will; until as in a clear crystal without flaw shining with colored light, or as a glassy lake reflecting within itself the heavens and every cloud and star, so is he reflected in our minds; and in the house we are his viceregents, and in the world his co-workers; and for the glory which he has in his work we have a like glory in ours.
"He is our teacher. Morning and evening throughout the various world, in the procession of the seasons, and in the blue heavens powdered with stars; in mountain and plain and many-toned forest; in the sounding walls of the ocean, and in the billowy seas through which we pass in peril from land to land, we read his thoughts and listen to his voice. Here do we learn with what far-seeing intelligence he has laid the foundations of his everlasting mansion, how skillfully he has builded its walls, and with what prodigal richness he has decorated all his works. For the sunlight and moonlight and the blueness of heaven are his; the sea with its tides; the blackness and the lightnings of the tempest, and snow, and changeful winds, and green and yellow leaf; his are also the silver rain and the rainbow, the shadows and the many-colored mists, which he flings like a mantle over all the world. Herein do we learn that he loves a stable building, and that the foundations and walls shall endure for ever: yet loves not sameness; thus, from day to day and from season to season do all things change their aspect, and the walls and floor and roof of his dwelling are covered with a new glory. But to us it is not given to rise to this supreme majesty in our works; therefore do we, like him yet unable to reach so great a height, borrow nothing one from the other, but in each house learn separately from him alone who has infinite riches; so that every habitation, changeless and eternal in itself, shall yet differ from all others, having its own special beauty and splendor: for we inhabit one house only, but the Father of men inhabits all.
"These things are written for the refreshment and delight of those who may no longer journey into distant lands; and they are in the library of the house in the seven thousand volumes of the Houses of the World which our pilgrims have visited in past ages. For once in a lifetime is it ordained that a man shall leave his own place and travel for the space of ten years, visiting the most famous houses in every land he enters, and also seeking out those of which no report has reached us.
"When the time for this chief adventure comes, and we go forth for a long period, there is compensation for every weariness, with absence of kindred and the sweet shelter of our own home: for now do we learn the infinite riches of the Father; for just as the day changes every hour, from the morning to the evening twilight, so does the aspect of the world alter as we progress from day to day; and in all places our fellow-men, learning as we do from him only, and seeing that which is nearest, give a special color of nature to their lives and their houses; and every house, with the family which inhabits it, in their conversation and the arts in which they excel, is like a round lake set about with hills, wherein may be seen that visible world. And in all the earth there is no land without inhabitants, whether on wide continents or islands of the sea; and in all nature there is no grandeur or beauty or grace which men have not copied; knowing that this is pleasing to the Father: for we, that are made like him, delight not to work without witnesses; and we are his witnesses in the earth, taking pleasure in his works, even as he also does in ours.
"Thus, at the beginning of our journey to the far south, where we go to look first on those bright lands, which have hotter suns and a greater variety than ours, we come to the wilderness of Coradine, which seems barren and desolate to our sight, accustomed to the deep verdure of woods and valleys, and the blue mists of an abundant moisture. There a stony soil brings forth only thorns, and thistles, and sere tufts of grass; and blustering winds rush over the unsheltered reaches, where the rough-haired goats huddle for warmth; and there is no melody save the many-toned voices of the wind and the plover's wild cry. There dwell the children of Coradine, on the threshold of the wind-vexed wilderness, where the stupendous columns of green glass uphold the roof of the House of Coradine; the ocean's voice is in their rooms, and the inland-blowing wind brings to them the salt spray and yellow sand swept at low tide from the desolate floors of the sea, and the white-winged bird flying from the black tempest screams aloud in their shadowy halls. There, from the high terraces, when the moon is at its full, we see the children of Coradine gathered together, arrayed like no others, in shining garments of gossamer threads, when, like thistle-down chased by eddying winds, now whirling in a cloud, now scattering far apart, they dance their moonlight dances on the wide alabaster floors; and coming and going they pass away, and seem to melt into the moonlight, yet ever to return again with changeful melody and new measures. And, seeing this, all those things in which we ourselves excel seem poor in comparison, becoming pale in our memories. For the winds and waves, and the whiteness and grace, has been ever with them; and the winged seed of the thistle, and the flight of the gull, and the storm-vexed sea, flowering in foam, and the light of the moon on sea and barren land, have taught them this art, and a swiftness and grace which they alone possess.
"Yet does this moonlight dance, which is the chief glory of the House of Coradine, grow pale in the mind, and is speedily forgotten, when another is seen; and, going on our way from house to house, we learn how everywhere the various riches of the world have been taken into his soul by man, and made part of his life. Nor are we inferior to others, having also an art and chief excellence which is ours only, and the fame of which has long gone forth into the world; so that from many distant lands pilgrims gather yearly to our fields to listen to our harvest melody, when the sun-ripened fruits have been garnered, and our lips and hands make undying music, to gladden the hearts of those that hear it all their lives long. For then do we rejoice beyond others, rising like bright-winged insects from our lowly state to a higher life of glory and joy, which is ours for the space of three whole days. Then the august Mother, in a brazen chariot, is drawn from field to field by milk-white bulls with golden horns; then her children are gathered about her in shining yellow garments, with armlets of gold upon their arms; and with voice and instruments of forms unknown to the stranger, they make glad the listening fields with the great harvest melody.
"In ancient days the children of our house conceived it in their hearts, hearing it in all nature's voices; and it was with them day and night, and they whispered it to one another when it was no louder than the whisper of the wind in the forest leaves; and as the Builder of the world brings from an hundred far places the mist, and the dew, and the sunshine, and the light west wind, to give to the morning hour its freshness and glory; and as we, his humbler followers, seek far off in caverns of the hills and in the dark bowels of the earth for minerals and dyes that outshine the flowers and the sun, to beautify the walls of our house, so everywhere by night and day for long centuries did we listen to all sounds, and made their mystery and melody ours, until this great song was perfected in our hearts, and the fame of it in all lands has caused our house to be called the House of the Harvest Melody; and when the yearly pilgrims behold our procession in the fields, and listen to our song, all the glory of the world seems to pass before them, overcoming their hearts, until, bursting into tears and loud cries, they cast themselves upon the earth and worship the Father of the whole world.