"This shall be the chief glory of our house for ever; when a thousand years have gone by, and we that are now living, like those that have been, are mingled with the nature we come from, and speak to our children only in the wind's voice, and the cry of the passage-bird, pilgrims shall still come to these sun-bright fields, to rejoice, and worship the Father of the world, and bless the august Mother of the house, from whose sacred womb ever comes to it life and love and joy, and the harvest melody that shall endure for ever."
The reading went on, not of course "for ever," like that harvest melody he spoke of, but for a considerable time. The words, I concluded, were for the initiated, and not for me, and after a while I gave up trying to make out what it was all about. Those last expressions I have quoted about the "august Mother of the house" were unintelligible, and appeared to me meaningless. I had already come to the conclusion that however many of the ladies of the establishment might have experienced the pleasures and pains of maternity, there was really no mother of the house in the sense that there was a father of the house: that is to say, one possessing authority over the others and calling them all her children indiscriminately. Yet this mysterious non-existent mother of the house was continually being spoken of, as I found now and afterwards when I listened to the talk around me. After thinking the matter over, I came to the conclusion that "mother of the house" was merely a convenient fiction, and simply stood for the general sense of the women-folk, or something of the sort. It was perhaps stupid of me, but the story of Mistrelde, who died young, leaving only eight children, I had regarded as a mere legend or fable of antiquity.
To return to the reading. Just as I had been absorbed before in that beautiful book without being able to read it, so now I listened to that melodious and majestic voice, experiencing a singular pleasure without properly understanding the sense. I remembered now with a painful feeling of inferiority that my thick speech had been remarked On earlier in the day; and I could not but think that, compared with the speech of this people, it was thick. In their rare physical beauty, the color of their eyes and hair, and in their fascinating dress, they had struck me as being utterly unlike any people ever seen by me. But it was perhaps in their clear, sweet, penetrative voice, which sometimes reminded me of a tender-toned wind instrument, that they most differed from others.
The reading, I have said, had struck me as almost of the nature of a religious service; nevertheless, everything went on as before—reading, working, and occasional conversation; but the subdued talking and moving about did not interfere with one's pleasure in the old man's musical speech any more than the soft murmur and flying about of honey bees would prevent one from enjoying the singing of a skylark. Emboldened by what I saw the others doing, I left my seat and made my way across the floor to Yoletta's side, stealing through the gloom with great caution to avoid making a clatter with those abominable boots.
"May I sit down near you?" said I with some hesitation; but she encouraged me with a smile and placed a cushion for me.
I settled myself down in the most graceful position I could assume, which was not at all graceful, doubling my objectionable legs out of her sight; and then began my trouble, for I was greatly perplexed to know what to say to her. I thought of lawn-tennis and archery. Ellen Terry's acting, the Royal Academy Exhibition, private theatricals, and twenty things besides, but they all seemed unsuitable subjects to start conversation with in this case. There was, I began to fear, no common ground on which we could meet and exchange thoughts, or, at any rate, words. Then I remembered that ground, common and broad enough, of our human feelings, especially the sweet and important feeling of love. But how was I to lead up to it? The work she was engaged with at length suggested an opening, and the opportunity to make a pretty little speech.
"Your sight must be as good as your eyes are pretty," said I, "to enable you to work in such a dim light."
"Oh, the light is good enough," she answered, taking no notice of the compliment. "Besides, this is such easy work I could do it in the dark."
"It is very pretty work—may I look at it?"
She handed the stuff to me, but instead of taking it in the ordinary way, I placed my hand under hers, and, holding up cloth and hand together, proceeded to give a minute and prolonged scrutiny to her work.
"Do you know that I am enjoying two distinct pleasures at one and the same time?" said I. "One is in seeing your work, the other in holding your hand; and I think the last pleasure even greater than the first." As she made no reply, I added somewhat lamely: "May I—keep on holding it?"
"That would prevent me from working," she answered, with the utmost gravity. "But you may hold it for a little while."
"Oh, thank you," I exclaimed, delighted with the privilege; and then, to make the most of my precious "little while," I pressed it warmly, whereupon she cried out aloud: "Oh, Smith, you are squeezing too hard—you hurt my hand!"
I dropped it instantly in the greatest confusion. "Oh, for goodness sake," I stammered, "please, do not make such an outcry! You don't know what a hobble you'll get me into."
Fortunately, no notice was taken of the exclamation, though it was hard to believe that her words had not been overheard; and presently, recovering from my fright, I apologized for hurting her, and hoped she would forgive me.
"There is nothing to forgive," she returned gently. "You did not really squeeze hard, only my hand hurts, because to-day when I pressed it on the ground beside the grave I ran a small thorn into it." Then the remembrance of that scene at the burial brought a sudden mist of tears into her lovely eyes.
"I am so sorry I hurt you, Yoletta—may I call you Yoletta?" said I, all at once remembering that she had called me Smith, without the customary prefix.
"Why, that is my name—what else should you call me?" she returned, evidently with surprise.
"It is a pretty name, and so sweet on the lips that I should like to be repeating it continually," I answered. "But it is only right that you should have a pretty name, because—well, if I may tell you, because you are so very beautiful."
"Yes; but is that strange—are not all people beautiful?"
I thought of certain London types, especially among the "criminal classes," and of the old women with withered, simian faces and wearing shawls, slinking in or out of public-houses at the street corners; and also of some people of a better class I had known personally—some even in the House of Commons; and I felt that I could not agree with her, much as I wished to do so, without straining my conscience.
"At all events, you will allow," said I, evading the question, "that there are degrees of beauty, just as there are degrees of light. You may be able to see to work in this light, but it is very faint compared with the noonday light when the sun is shining."
"Oh, there is not so great a difference between people as that," she replied, with the air of a philosopher. "There are different kinds of beauty, I allow, and some people seem more beautiful to us than others, but that is only because we love them more. The best loved are always the most beautiful."
This seemed to reverse the usual idea, that the more beautiful the person is the more he or she gets loved. However, I was not going to disagree with her any more, and only said: "How sweetly you talk, Yoletta; you are as wise as you are beautiful. I could wish for no greater pleasure than to sit here listening to you the whole evening."
"Ah, then, I am sorry I must leave you now," she answered, with a bright smile which made me think that perhaps my little speech had pleased her.
"Do you wonder why I smile?" she added, as if able to read my thoughts. "It is because I have often heard words like yours from one who is waiting for me now."
This speech caused me a jealous pang. But for a few moments after speaking, she continued regarding me with that bright, spiritual smile on her lips; then it faded, and her face clouded and her glance fell. I did not ask her to tell me, nor did I ask myself, the reason of that change; and afterwards how often I noticed that same change in her, and in the others too—that sudden silence and clouding of the face, such as may be seen in one who freely expresses himself to a person who cannot hear, and then, all at once but too late, remembers the other's infirmity.
"Must you go?" I only said. "What shall I do alone?".
"Oh, you shall not be alone," she replied, and going away returned presently with another lady. "This is Edra," she said simply. "She will take my place by your side and talk with you."
I could not tell her that she had taken my words too literally, that being alone simply meant being separated from her; but there was no help for it, and some one, alas! some one I greatly hated was waiting for her. I could only thank her and her friend for their kind intentions. But what in the name of goodness was I to say to this beautiful woman who was sitting by me? She was certainly very beautiful, with a far more mature and perhaps a nobler beauty than Yoletta's, her age being about twenty-seven or twenty-eight; but the divine charm in the young girl's face could, for me, exist in no other.
Presently she opened the conversation by asking me if I disliked being alone.
"Well, no, perhaps not exactly that," I said; "but I think it much jollier—much more pleasant, I mean—to have some very nice person to talk to."
She assented, and, pleased at her ready intelligence, I added: "And it is particularly pleasant when you are understood. But I have no fear that you, at any rate, will fail to understand anything I may say."
"You have had some trouble to-day," she returned, with a charming smile. "I sometimes think that women can understand even more readily than men."
"There's not a doubt of it!" I returned warmly, glad to find that with Edra it was all plain sailing. "It must be patent to every one that women have far quicker, finer intellects than men, although their brains are smaller; but then quality is more important than mere quantity. And yet," I continued, "some people hold that women ought not to have the franchise, or suffrage, or whatever it is! Not that I care two straws about the question myself, and I only hope they'll never get it; but then I think it is so illogical—don't you?"
"I am afraid I do not understand you, Smith," she returned, looking much distressed.
"Well, no, I suppose not, but what I said was of no consequence," I replied; then, wishing to make a fresh start, I added: "But I am so glad to hear you call me Smith. It makes it so much more pleasant and homelike to be treated without formality. It is very kind of you, I'm sure."
"But surely your name is Smith?" said she, looking very much surprised.
"Oh yes, my name is Smith: only of course—well, the tact is, I was just wondering what to call you."
"My name is Edra," she replied, looking more bewildered than ever; and from that moment the conversation, which had begun so favorably, was nothing but a series of entanglements, from which I could only escape in each case by breaking the threads of the subject under discussion, and introducing a new one.
The moment of retiring, to which I had been looking forward with considerable interest as one likely to bring fresh surprises, arrived at last: it brought only extreme discomfort. I was conducted (without a flat candlestick) along an obscure passage; then, at right angles with the first, a second broader, lighter passage, leading past a great many doors placed near together. These, I ascertained later, were the dormitories, or sleeping-cells, and were placed side by side in a row opening on the terrace at the back of the house. Having reached the door of my box, my conductor pushed back the sliding-panel, and when I had groped my way to the dark interior, closed it again behind me. There was no light for me except the light of the stars; for directly opposite the door by which I had entered stood another, open wide to the night, which was apparently not intended ever to be closed. The prospect was the one I had already seen—the wilderness sloping to the river, and the glassy surface of the broad water, reflecting the stars, and the black masses of large trees. There was no sound save the hooting of an owl in the distance, and the wailing note of some mournful-minded water-fowl. The night air blew in cold and moist, which made my bones ache, though they were not broken; and feeling very sleepy and miserable, I groped about until I Was rewarded by discovering a narrow bed, or cot of trellis-work, on which was a hard straw pallet and a small straw pillow; also, folded small, a kind of woolen sleeping garment. Too tired to keep out of even such an uninviting bed, I flung off my clothes, and with my moldy tweeds for only covering I laid me down, but not to sleep. The misery of it! for although my body was warm—too warm, in fact—the wind blew on my face and bare feet and legs, and made it impossible to sleep.
About midnight, I was just falling into a doze when a sound as of a person coming with a series of jumps into the room disturbed me; and starting up I was horrified to see, sitting on the floor, a great beast much too big for a dog, with large, erect ears. He was intently watching me, his round eyes shining like a pair of green phosphorescent globes. Having no weapon, I was at the brute's mercy, and was about to utter a loud shout to summon assistance, but as he sat so still I refrained, and began even to hope that he would go quietly away. Then he stood up, went back to the door and sniffed audibly at it; and thinking that he was about to relieve me of his unwelcome presence, I dropped my head on the pillow and lay perfectly still. Then he turned and glared at me again, and finally, advancing deliberately to my side, sniffed at my face. It was all over with me now, I thought, and closing my eyes, and feeling my forehead growing remarkably moist in spite of the cold, I murmured a little prayer. When I looked again the brute had vanished, to my inexpressible relief.
It seemed very astonishing that an animal like a wolf should come into the house; but I soon remembered that I had seen no dogs about, so that all kinds of savage, prowling beasts could come in with impunity. It was getting beyond a joke: but then all this seemed only a fit ending to the perfectly absurd arrangement into which I had been induced to enter. "Goodness gracious!" I exclaimed, sitting bolt upright on my straw bed, "am I a rational being or an inebriated donkey, or what, to have consented to such a proposal? It is clear that I was not quite in my right mind when I made the agreement, and I am therefore not morally bound to observe it. What! be a field laborer, a hewer of wood and drawer of water, and sleep on a miserable straw mat in an open porch, with wolves for visitors at all hours of the night, and all for a few barbarous rags! I don't know much about plowing and that sort of thing, but I suppose any able-bodied man can earn a pound a week, and that would be fifty-two pounds for a suit of clothes. Who ever heard of such a thing! Wolves and all thrown in for nothing! I daresay I shall have a tiger dropping in presently just to have a look round. No, no, my venerable friend, that was all excellent acting about my extraordinary delusions, and the rest of it, but I am not going to be carried so far by them as to adhere to such an outrageously one-sided bargain."
Presently I remembered two things—divine Yoletta was the first; and the second was that thought of the rare pleasure it would be to array myself in those same "barbarous rags," as I had blasphemously called them. These things had entered into my soul, and had become a part of me—especially—well, both. Those strange garments had looked so refreshingly picturesque, and I had conceived such an intense longing to wear them! Was it a very contemptible ambition on my part? Is it sinful to wish for any adornments other than wisdom and sobriety, a meek and loving spirit, good works, and other things of the kind? Straight into my brain flashed the words of a sentence I had recently read—that is to say, just before my accident—in a biological work, and it comforted me as much as if an angel with shining face and rainbow-colored wings had paid me a visit in my dusky cell: "Unto Adam also, and his wife, did the Lord God make coats of skin and clothed them. This has become, as every one knows, a custom among the race of men, and shows at present no sign of becoming obsolete. Moreover, that first correlation, namely, milk-glands and a hairy covering, appears to have entered the very soul of creatures of this class, and to have become psychical as well as physical, for in that type, which is only for a while inferior to the angels, the fondness for this kind of outer covering is a strong, ineradicable passion!" Most true and noble words, O biologist of the fiery soul! It was a delight to remember them. A "strong and ineradicable passion," not merely to clothe the body, but to clothe it appropriately, that is to say, beautifully, and by so doing please God and ourselves. This being so, must we go on for ever scraping our faces with a sharp iron, until they are blue and spotty with manifold scrapings; and cropping our hair short to give ourselves an artificial resemblance to old dogs and monkeys—creatures lower than us in the scale of being—and array our bodies, like mutes at a funeral, in repulsive black—we, "Eutheria of the Eutheria, the noble of the noble?" And all for what, since it pleases not heaven nor accords with our own desires? For the sake of respectability, perhaps, whatever that may mean. Oh, then, a million curses take it—respectability, I mean; may it sink into the bottomless pit, and the smoke of its torment ascend for ever and ever! And having thus, by taking thought, brought my mind into this temper, I once more finally determined to have the clothes, and religiously to observe the compact.
It made me quite happy to end it in this way. The hard bed, the cold night wind blowing on me, my wolfish visitor, were all forgotten. Once more I gave loose to my imagination, and saw myself (clothed and in my right mind) sitting at Yoletta's feet, learning the mystery of that sweet, tranquil life from her precious lips. A whole year was mine in which to love her and win her gentle heart. But her hand—ah, that was another matter. What had I to give in return for such a boon as that? Only that strength concerning which my venerable host had spoken somewhat encouragingly. He had also been so good as to mention my skill; but I could scarcely trade on that. And if a whole year's labor was only sufficient to pay for a suit of clothing, how many years of toil would be required to win Yoletta's hand?
Naturally, at this juncture, I began to draw a parallel between my case and that of an ancient historical personage, whose name is familiar to most. History repeats itself—with variations. Jacob—namely, Smith—cometh to the well of Haran. He taketh acquaintance of Rachel, here called Yoletta. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept. That is a touch of nature I can thoroughly appreciate—the kissing, I mean; but why he wept I cannot tell, unless it be because he was not an Englishman. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's brother. I am glad to have no such startling piece of information to give to the object of my affections: we are not even distant relations, and her age being, say, fifteen, and mine twenty-one, we are so far well suited to each other, according to my notions. Smith covenanted! for Yoletta, and said: "I will serve thee seven years for Yoletta, thy younger daughter"; and the old gentleman answered: "Abide with me, for I would rather you should have her than some other person." Now I wonder whether the matter will be complicated with Leah—that is, Edra? Leah was considerably older than Rachel, and, like Edra, tender-eyed. I do not aspire or desire to marry both, especially if I should, like Jacob, have to begin with the wrong one, however tender-eyed: but for divine Yoletta I could serve seven years; yea, and fourteen, if it comes to it.
Thus I mused, and thus I questioned, tossing and turning on my inhospitable hard bed, until merciful sleep laid her quieting hands on the strings of my brain, and hushed their weary jangling.
Fortunately I woke early next morning, for I was now a member of an early-rising family, and anxious to conform to rules. On going to the door I found, to my inexpressible disgust, that I might easily have closed it in the way I had seen the other door closed, by simply pulling a sliding panel. There was ventilation enough without having the place open to prowling beasts of prey. I also found that if I had turned up the little stray bed I should have had warm woolen sheets to sleep in.
I resolved to say nothing about my nocturnal visitor, not wishing to begin the day by furnishing fresh instances of what might seem like crass stupidity on my part. While occupied with these matters I began to hear people moving about and talking on the terrace, and peeping out, I beheld a curious and interesting spectacle. Down the broad steps leading to the water the people of the house were hurrying, and flinging themselves like agile, startled frogs on the bosom of the stream. There, in the midst of his family, my venerable host was already disporting himself, his long, silvery beard and hair floating like a foam on the waves of his own creating. And presently from other sleeping-rooms on a line with mine shot forth new bewitching forms, each sparsely clothed in a slender clinging garment, which concealed no beauteous curve beneath; and nimbly running and leaping down the slope, they quickly joined the masculine bathers.
Looking about I soon found a pretty thing in which to array myself, and quickly started after the others, risking my neck in my desire to imitate the new mode of motion I had just witnessed. The water was delightfully cool and refreshing, and the company very agreeable, ladies and gentlemen all swimming and diving about together with the unconventional freedom and grace of a company of grebes.
After dressing, we assembled in the eating-room or portico where we had supped, just when the red disk of the sun was showing itself above the horizon, kindling the clouds with yellow flame, and filling the green world with new light. I felt happy and strong that morning, very able and willing to work in the fields, and, better than all, very hopeful about that affair of the heart. Happiness, however, is seldom perfect, and in the clear, tender morning light I could not help contrasting my own repulsively ugly garments with the bright and beautiful costumes worn by the others, which seemed to harmonize so well with their fresh, happy morning mood. I also missed the fragrant cup of coffee, the streaky rasher from the dear familiar pig, and, after breakfast, the well-flavored cigar; but these lesser drawbacks were soon forgotten.
After the meal a small closed basket was handed to me, and one of the young men led me out to a little distance from the house, then, pointing to a belt of wood about a mile away, told me to walk towards it until I came to a plowed field on the slope of a valley, where I could do some plowing. Before leaving me he took from his own person a metal dog-whistle, with a string attached, and hung it round my neck, but without explaining its use.
Basket in hand I went away, over the dewy grass, whistling light-heartedly, and after half an hour's walk found the spot indicated, where about an acre and a half of land had been recently turned; there also, lying in the furrow, I found the plow, an implement I knew very little about. This particular plow, however, appeared to be a simple, primitive thing, consisting of a long beam of wood, with an upright pole to guide it; a metal share in the center, going off to one side, balanced on the other by a couple of small wheels; and there were also some long ropes attached to a cross-stick at the end of the beam. There being no horses or bullocks to do the work, and being unable to draw the plow myself as well as guide it, I sat down leisurely to examine the contents of my basket, which, I found, consisted of brown bread, dried fruit, and a stone bottle of milk. Then, not knowing what else to do, I began to amuse myself by blowing on the whistle, and emitted a most shrill and piercing sound, which very soon produced an unexpected effect. Two noble-looking horses, resembling those I had seen the day before, came galloping towards me as if in response to the sound I had made. Approaching swiftly to within fifty yards they stood still, staring and snorting as if alarmed or astonished, after which they swept round me three or four times, neighing in a sharp, ringing manner, and finally, after having exhausted their superfluous energy, they walked to the plow and placed themselves deliberately before it. It looked as if these animals had come at my call to do the work; I therefore approached them, with more than needful caution, using many soothing, conciliatory sounds and words the while, and after a little further study I discovered how to adjust the ropes to them. There were no blinkers or reins, nor did these superb animals seem to think any were wanted; but after I had taken the pole in my hand, and said "Gee up, Dobbin," in a tone of command, followed by some inarticulate clicks with the tongue, they rewarded me with a disconcerting stare, and then began dragging the plow. As long as I held the pole straight the share cut its way evenly through the mold, but occasionally, owing to my inadvertence, it would go off at a tangent or curve quite out of the ground; and whenever this happened the horses would stop, turn round and stare at me, then, touching their noses together seem to exchange ideas on the subject. When the first furrow was finished, they did not double back, as I expected, but went straight away to a distance of thirty yards, and then, turning, marched back, cutting a fresh furrow parallel with the first, and as straight as a line. Then they returned to the original starting-point and cut another, then again to the new furrow, and so on progressively. All this seemed very wonderful to me, giving the impression that I had been a skillful plowman all my life without knowing it. It was interesting work; and I was also amused to see the little birds that came in numbers from the wood to devour the worms in the fresh-turned mold; for between their fear of me and their desire to get the worms, they were in a highly perplexed state, and generally confined their operations to one end of the furrow while I was away at the other. The space the horses had marked out for themselves was plowed up in due time, whereupon they marched off and made a fresh furrow as before, where there was nothing to guide them; and so the work went on agreeably for some hours, until I felt myself growing desperately hungry. Sitting down on the beam of the plow, I opened my basket and discussed the homely fare with a keen appetite.
After finishing the food I resumed work again, but not as cheerfully as at first: I began to feel a little stiff and tired, and the immense quantity of mold adhering to my boots made it heavy walking; moreover, the novelty had now worn off. The horses also did not work as smoothly as at the commencement: they seemed to have something on their minds, for at the end of every furrow they would turn and stare at me in the most exasperating manner.
"Phew!" I ejaculated, as I stood wiping the honest sweat from my face with my moldy, ancient, and extremely dirty pocket-handkerchief. "Three hundred and sixty-four days of this sort of thing is a rather long price to pay for a suit of clothes."
While standing there, I saw an animal coming swiftly towards me from the direction of the forest, bounding along over the earth with a speed like that of a greyhound—a huge, fierce-looking brute; and when close to me, I felt convinced that it was an animal of the same kind as the one I had seen during the night. Before I had made up my mind what to do, he was within a few yards of me, and then, coming to a sudden halt, he sat down on his haunches, and gravely watched me. Calling to mind some things I had heard about the terrifying effect of the human eye on royal tigers and other savage beasts, I gazed steadily at him, and then almost lost my fear in admiration of his beauty. He was taller than a boarhound, but slender in figure, with keen, fox-like features, and very large, erect ears; his coat was silvery-gray, and long; there were two black spots above his eyes; and the feet, muzzle, ear-tips, and end of the bushy tail were also velvet-black. After watching me quietly for two or three minutes, he started up, and, much to my relief, trotted away towards the wood; but after going about fifty yards he looked back, and seeing me still gazing after him, wheeled round and rushed at me, and when quite close uttered a sound like a ringing, metallic yelp, after which he once more bounded away, and disappeared from sight.
The horses now turned round, and, deliberately walking up to me, stood still, in spite of all I could do to make them continue the work. After waiting a while they proceeded to wriggle themselves out of the ropes, and galloped off, loudly neighing to each other, and flinging up their disdainful heels so as to send a shower of dirt over me. Left alone in this unceremonious fashion, I presently began to think that they knew more about the work than I did, and that, finding me indisposed to release them at the proper moment, they had taken the matter into their own hands, or hoofs rather. A little more pondering, and I also came to the conclusion that the singular wolf-like animal was only one of the house-dogs; that he had visited me in the night to remind me that I was sleeping with the door open, and had come now to insist on a suspension of work.
Glad at having discovered all these things without displaying my ignorance by asking questions, I took up my basket and started home.
When I arrived at the house I was met by the young man who had set me the morning's task; but he was taciturn now, and wore a cold, estranged look, which seemed to portend trouble. He at once led me to a part of the house at a distance from the hall, and into a large apartment I now saw for the first time. In a few moments the master of the house, followed by most of the other inmates, also entered, and on the faces of all of them I noticed the same cold, offended look.
"The dickens take my luck!" said I to myself, beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable. "I suppose I have offended against the laws and customs by working the horses too long."
"Smith," said the old man, advancing to the table, and depositing thereon a large volume he had brought with him, "come here, and read to me in this book."
Advancing to the table, I saw that it was written in the same minute, Hebrew-like characters of the folio I had examined on the previous evening. "I cannot read it; I do not understand the letters," I said, feeling some shame at having thus publicly to confess my ignorance.
"Then," said he, bending on me a look of the utmost severity, "there is indeed little more to be said. Nevertheless, we take into account the confused state of your intellect yesterday, and judge you leniently; and let us hope that the pangs of an outraged conscience will be more painful to you than the light punishment I am about to inflict for so destestable a crime."
I now concluded that I had offended by squeezing Yoletta's hand, and had been told to read from the book merely to make myself acquainted with the pains and penalties attendant on such an indiscretion, for to call it a "detestable crime" seemed to me a very great abuse of language.
"If I have offended," was my answer, delivered with little humility, "I can only plead my ignorance of the customs of the house."
"No man," he returned, with increased severity, "is so ignorant as not to know right from wrong. Had the matter come to my knowledge sooner, I should have said: Depart from us, for your continued presence in the house offends us; but we have made a compact with you, and, until the year expires, we must suffer you. For the space of sixty days you must dwell apart from us, never leaving the room, where each day a task will be assigned to you, and subsisting on bread and water only. Let us hope that in this period of solitude and silence you will sufficiently repent your crime, and rejoin us afterwards with a changed heart; for all offenses may be forgiven a man, but it is impossible to forgive a lie."
"A lie!" I exclaimed in amazement. "I have told no lie!"
"This," said he, with an access of wrath, "is an aggravation of your former offense. It is even a worse offense than the first, and must be dealt with separately—when the sixty days have expired."
"Are you, then, going to condemn me without hearing me speak, or telling me anything about it? What lie have I told?"
After a pause, during which he closely scrutinized my face, he said, pointing to the open page before him: "Yesterday, in answer to my question, you told me that you could read. Last evening you made a contrary statement to Yoletta; and now here is the book, and you confess that you cannot read it."
"But that is easily explained," said I, immensely relieved, for I certainly had felt a little guilty about the hand-squeezing performance, although it was not a very serious matter. "I can read the books of my own country, and naturally concluded that your books were written in the same kind of letters; but last evening I discovered that it was not so. You have already seen the letters of my country on the coins I showed you last evening."
And here I again pulled out my pocket-book, and emptied the contents on the table.
He began to pick up the sovereigns one by one to examine them. Meanwhile, finding my beautiful black and gold stylograph pen inserted in the book, I thought I could not do better than to show him how I wrote. Fortunately, the fluid in it had not become dry. Tearing a blank page from my book I hastily scribbled a few lines, and handed the paper to him, saying: "This is how I write."
He began studying the paper, but his eyes, I perceived, wandered often to the stylograph pen in my hand.
Presently he remarked: "This writing, or these marks you have made on the paper, are not the same as the letters on the gold."
I took the paper and proceeded to copy the sentence I had written, but in printing letters, beneath it, then returned it to him.
He examined it again, and, after comparing my letters with those on the sovereigns, said: "Pray tell me, now, what you have written here, and explain why you write in two different ways?"
I told him, as well as I could, why letters of one form were used to stamp on gold and other substances, and of a different form for writing. Then, with a modest blush, I read the words of the sentence: "In different parts of the world men have different customs, and write different letters; but alike to all men in all places, a lie is hateful."
"Smith," he said, addressing me in an impressive manner, but happily not to charge me with a third and bigger lie, "I have lived long in the world, and the knowledge others possess concerning it is mine also. It is common knowledge that in the hotter and colder regions men are compelled to live differently, owing to the conditions they are placed in; but we know that everywhere they have the same law of right and wrong inscribed on the heart, and, as you have said, hate a lie; also that they all speak the same language; and until this moment I also believed that they wrote in similar characters. You, however, have now succeeded in convincing me that this is not the case; that in some obscure valley, cut off from all intercourse by inaccessible mountains, or in some small, unknown island of the sea, a people may exist—ah, did you not tell me that you came from an island?"
"Yes, my home was on an island," I answered.
"So I imagined. An island of which no report has ever reached us, where the people, isolated from their fellows, have in the course of many centuries changed their customs—even their manner of writing. Although I had seen these gold pieces I did not understand, or did not realize, that such a human family existed: now I am persuaded of it, and as I alone am to blame for having brought this charge against you, I must now ask your forgiveness. We rejoice at your innocence, and hope with increased love to atone for our injustice. My son," he concluded, placing a hand on my shoulder, "I am now deeply in your debt."
"I am glad it has ended so happily," I replied, wondering whether his being in my debt would increase my chances with Yoletta or not.
Seeing him again directing curious glances at the stylograph, which I was turning about in my fingers, I offered it to him.
He examined it with interest.
"I have only been waiting for an opportunity," he said, "to look closely at this wonderful contrivance, for I had perceived that your writing was not made with a pencil, but with a fluid. It is black polished stone, beautifully fashioned and encircled with gold bands, and contains the writing-fluid within itself. This surprises me as much as anything you have told me."
"Allow me to make you a present of it," said I, seeing him so taken with it.
"No, not so," he returned. "But I should greatly like to possess it, and will keep it if I may bestow in return something you desire."
Yoletta's hand was really the only thing in life I desired, but it was too early to speak yet, as I knew nothing about their matrimonial usages—not even whether or not the lady's consent was necessary to a compact of the kind. I therefore made a more modest request. "There is one thing I greatly desire," I said. "I am very anxious to be able to read in your books, and shall consider myself more than compensated if you will permit Yoletta to teach me."
"She shall teach you in any case, my son," he returned. "That, and much more, is already owning to you."
"There is nothing else I desire," said I. "Pray keep the pen and make me happy."
And thus ended a disagreeable matter.
The cloud having blown over, we all repaired to the supper-room, and nothing could exceed our happiness as we sat at meat—or vegetables. Not feeling so ravenously hungry as on the previous evening, and, moreover, seeing them all in so lively a mood, I did not hesitate to join in the conversation: nor did I succeed so very badly, considering the strangeness of it all; for like the bee that has been much hindered at his flowery work by geometric webs, I began to acquire some skill in pushing my way gracefully through the tangling meshes of thought and phrases that were new to me.
The afternoon's experiences had certainly been remarkable—a strange mixture of pain and pleasure, not blending into homogeneous gray, but resembling rather a bright embroidery on a dark, somber ground; and of these surprising contrasts I was destined to have more that same evening.
We were again assembled in the great room, the venerable father reclining at his ease on his throne-like couch near the brass globes, while the others pursued their various occupations as on the former evening. Not being able to get near Yoletta, and having nothing to do, I settled myself comfortably in one of the spacious seats, and gave up my mind to pleasant dreams. At length, to my surprise, the father, who had been regarding me for some time, said: "Will you lead, my son?"
I started up, turning very red in the face, for I did not wish to trouble him with questions, yet was at a loss to know what he meant by leading. I thought of several things—whist, evening prayers, dancing, etc.; but being still in doubt, I was compelled to ask him to explain.
"Will you lead the singing?" he returned, looking a little surprised.
"Oh yes, with pleasure," said I. There being no music about, and no piano, I concluded naturally that my friends amused themselves with solo songs without accompaniment of an evening, and having a good tenor voice I was not unwilling to lead off with a song. Clearing my rusty throat with a ghrr-ghrr-hram which made them all jump, I launched forth with the "Vicar of Bray"—a grand old song and a great favorite of mine. They all started when I commenced, exchanging glances, and casting astonished looks towards me; but it was getting so dusky in the room that I could not feel sure that my eyes were not deceiving me. Presently some that were near me began retiring to distant seats, and this distressed me so that it made me hoarse, and my singing became very bad indeed; but still I thought it best to go bravely on to the end. Suddenly the old gentleman, who had been staring wildly at me for some time, drew up his long yellow robe and wrapped it round his face and head. I glanced at Yoletta, sitting at some distance, and saw that she was holding her hands pressed to her ears.
I thought it about time to leave off then, and stopping abruptly in the middle of the fourth stanza I sat down, feeling extremely hot and uncomfortable. I was almost choking, and unable to utter a word. But there was no word for me to utter: it was, of course, for them to thank me for singing, or to say something; but not a word was spoken. Yoletta dropped her hands and resumed her work, while the old man slowly emerged with a somewhat frightened look from the wrappings; and then the long dead silence becoming unendurable, I remarked that I feared my singing was not to their taste. No reply was made; only the father, putting out one of his hands, touched a handle or key near him, whereupon one of the brass globes began slowly revolving. A low murmur of sound arose, and seemed to pass like a wave through the room, dying away in the distance, soon to be succeeded by another, and then another, each marked by an increase of power; and often as this solemn sound died away, faint flute-like notes were heard as if approaching, but still at a great distance, and in the ensuing wave of sound from the great globes they would cease to be distinguishable. Still the mysterious coming sounds continued at intervals to grow louder and clearer, joined by other tones as they progressed, now altogether bursting out in joyous chorus, then one purest liquid note soaring bird-like alone, but whether from voices or wind-instruments I was unable to tell, until the whole air about me was filled and palpitating with the strange, exquisite harmony, which passed onwards, the tones growing fewer and fainter by degrees until they almost died out of hearing in the opposite direction. That all were now taking part in the performance I became convinced by watching in turn different individuals, some of them having small, curiously-shaped instruments in their hands, but there was a blending of voices and a something like ventriloquism in the tones which made it impossible to distinguish the notes of any one person. Deeper, more sonorous tones now issued from the revolving globes, sometimes resembling in character the vox humana of an organ, and every time they rose to a certain pitch there were responsive sounds—not certainly from any of the performers—low, tremulous, and Aeolian in character, wandering over the entire room, as if walls and ceiling were honey-combed with sensitive musical cells, answering to the deeper vibrations. These floating aerial sounds also answered to the higher notes of some of the female singers, resembling soprano voices, brightened and spiritualized in a wonderful degree; and then the wide room would be filled with a mist, as it were, of this floating, formless melody, which seemed to come from invisible harpers hovering in the shadows above.
Lying back on my couch, listening with closed eyes to this mysterious, soul-stirring concert, I was affected to tears, and almost feared that I had been snatched away into some supra-mundane region inhabited by beings of an angelic or half-angelic order—feared, I say, for, with this new love in my heart, no elysium or starry abode could compare with this green earth for a dwellingplace. But when I remembered my own brutal bull of Bashan performance, my face, there in the dark, was on fire with shame; and I cursed the ignorant, presumptuous folly I had been guilty of in roaring out that abominable "Vicar of Bray" ballad, which had now become as hateful to me as my trousers or boots. The composer of that song, the writer of the words, and its subject, the double-faced Vicar himself, presented themselves to my mind as the three most damnable beings that had ever existed. "The devil take my luck!" I muttered, grinding my teeth with impotent anger; for it seemed such hard lines, just when I had succeeded in getting into favor, to go and spoil it all in that unhappy way. Now that I had become acquainted with their style of singing, the supposed fib, about which there had been such a pother, seemed a very venial offense compared with my attempt to lead the singing. Nevertheless, when the concert was over, not a word was said on the subject by any one, though I had quite expected to be taken at once to the magisterial chamber to hear some dreadful sentence passed on me; and when, before retiring, anxious to propitiate my host, I began to express regret for having inflicted pain on them by attempting to sing, the venerable gentleman raised his hands deprecatingly, and begged me to say no more about it, for painful subjects were best forgotten. "No doubt," he kindly added, "when you were lying there buried among the hills, you swallowed a large amount of earth and gravel in your efforts to breathe, and have not yet freed your lungs from it."
This was the most charitable view he could take of the matter, and I was thankful that no worse result followed.
At length the joyful day arrived when I was to cease, in outward appearance at all events, to be an alien; for returning at noon from the fields, on entering my cell I beheld my beautiful new garments—two complete suits, besides underwear: one, the most soberly colored, intended only for working hours; but the second, which was for the house, claimed my first attention. Trembling with eagerness, I flung off the old tweeds, the cracked boots, and other vestiges of a civilization which they had perhaps survived, and soon found that I had been measured with faultless accuracy; for everything, down to the shoes, fitted to perfection. Green was the prevailing or ground tint—a soft sap green; the pattern on it, which was very beautiful, being a somewhat obscure red, inclining to purple. My delight culminated when I drew on the hose, which had, like those worn by the others, a curious design, evidently borrowed from the skin of some kind of snake. The ground color was light green, almost citron yellow, in fact, and the pattern a bright maroon red, with bronze reflections.
I had no sooner arrayed myself than, with a flushed face and palpitating heart, I flew to exhibit myself to my friends, and found them assembled and waiting to see and admire the result of their work. The pleasure I saw reflected in their transparent faces increased my happiness a hundredfold, and I quite astonished them with the torrent of eloquence in which I expressed my overflowing gratitude.
"Now, tell me one secret," I exclaimed, when the excitement began to abate a little. "Why is green the principal color in my clothes, when no other person in the house wears more than a very little of it?"
I had no sooner spoken than I heartily wished that I had held my peace; for it all at once occurred to me that green was perhaps the color for an alien or mere hireling, in which light they perhaps regarded me.
"Oh, Smith, can you not guess so simple a thing?" said Edra, placing her white hands on my shoulders and smiling straight into my face.
How beautiful she looked, standing there with her eyes so near to mine! "Tell me why, Edra?" I said, still with a lingering apprehension.
"Why, look at the color of my eyes and skin—would this green tint be suitable for me to wear?"
"Oh, is that the reason!" cried I, immensely relieved. "I think, Edra, you would look very beautiful in any color that is on the earth, or in the rainbow above the earth. But am I so different from you all?"
"Oh yes, quite different—have you never looked at yourself? Your skin is whiter and redder, and your hair has a very different color. It will look better when it grows long, I think. And your eyes—do you know that they never change! for when we look at you closely they are still blue-gray, and not green."
"No; I wish they were," said I. "Now I shall value my clothes a hundred times more, since you have taken so much pains to make them—well, what shall I say?—harmonize, I suppose, with the peculiar color of my mug. Dash it all, I'm blundering again! I mean—I mean—don't you know——"
Edra laughed and gave it up. Then we all laughed; for now evidently my blundering did not so much matter, since I had shed my outer integument, and come forth like a snake (with a divided tail) in a brand new skin.
Presently I missed Yoletta from the room, and desiring above all things to have some word of congratulation from her lips, I went off to seek her. She was standing under the portico waiting for me. "Come," she said, and proceeded to lead me into the music-room, where we sat down on one of the couches close to the dais; there she produced some large white tablets, and red chalk pencils or crayons.
"Now, Smith, I am going to begin teaching you," said she, with the grave air of a young schoolmistress; "and every afternoon, when your work is done, you must come to me here."
"I hope I am very stupid, and that it will take me a long time to learn," said I.
"Oh"—she laughed—"do you think it will be so pleasant sitting by me here? I am glad you think that; but if you prefer me for a teacher you must not try to be stupid, because if you do I shall ask some one else to take my place."
"Would you really do that, Yoletta?"
"Yes. Shall I tell you why? Because I have a quick, impatient temper. Everything wrong I have ever done, for which I have been punished, has been through my hasty temper."
"And have you ever undergone that sad punishment of being shut up by yourself for many days, Yoletta?"
"Yes, often; for what other punishment is there? But oh, I hope it will never happen again, because I think—I know that I suffer more than any one can imagine. To tread on the grass, to feel the sun and wind on my face, to see the earth and sky and animals—this is like life to me; and when I am shut up alone, every day seems—oh, a year at least!" She did not know how much dearer this confession of one little human weakness made her seem to me. "Come, let us begin," she said. "I waited for your new clothes to be finished, and we must make up for lost time."
"But do you know, Yoletta, that you have not said anything about them? Do I look nice; and will you like me any better now?"
"Yes, much better. You were a poor caterpillar before; I liked you a little because I knew what a pretty butterfly you would be in time. I helped to make your wings. Now, listen."
For two hours she taught me, making her red letters or marks, which I copied on my tablet, and explaining them to me; and at the conclusion of the lesson, I had got a general idea that the writing was to a great extent phonographic, and that I was in for rather a tough job.
"Do you think that you will be able to teach me to sing also?" I asked, when she had put the tablets aside.
The memory of that miserable failure, when I "had led the singing," was a constant sore in my mind. I had begun to think that I had not done myself justice on that memorable occasion, and the desire to make another trial under more favorable circumstances was very strong in me.
She looked a little startled at my question, but said nothing.
"I know now," I continued pleadingly, "that you all sing softly. If you will only consent to try me once I promise to stick like cobbler's wax—I beg your pardon, I mean I will endeavor to adhere to the morendo and perdendosi style—don't you know? What am I saying! But I promise you, Yoletta, I shan't frighten you, if you will only let me try and sing to you once."
She turned from me with a somewhat clouded expression of face, and walked with slow steps to the dais, and placing her hands on the keys, caused two of the small globes to revolve, sending soft waves of sound through the room.
I advanced towards her, but she raised her hand apprehensively. "No, no, no; stand there," she said, "and sing low."
It was hard to see her troubled face and obey, but I was not going to bellow at her like a bull, and I had set my heart on this trial. For the last three days, while working in the fields, I had been incessantly practicing my dear old master Campana's exquisite M'appar sulla tomba, the only melody I happened to know which had any resemblance to their divine music. To my surprise she seemed to play as I sang a suitable accompaniment on the globes, which aided and encouraged me, and, although singing in a subdued tone, I felt that I had never sung so well before. When I finished, I quite expected some word of praise, or to be asked why I had not sung this melody on that unhappy evening when I was asked to lead; but she spoke no word.
"Will you sing something now?" I said.
"Not now—this evening," she replied absently, slowly walking across the floor with eyes cast down.
"What are you thinking of, Yoletta, that you look so serious?" I asked.
"Nothing," she returned, a little impatiently.
"You look very solemn about nothing, then. But you have not said one word about my singing—did you not like it?"
"Your singing? Oh no! It was a pleasant-tasting little kernel in a very rough rind—I should like one without the other."
"You talk in riddles, Yoletta; but I'm afraid the answers to them would not sound very flattering to me. But if you would like to know the song I shall be only too glad to teach it to you. The words are in Italian, but I can translate them."
"The words?" she said absently.
"The words of the song," I said.
"I do not know what you mean by the words of a song. Do not speak to me now, Smith."
"Oh, very well," said I, thinking it all very strange, and sitting down I divided my attention between my beautiful hose and Yoletta, still slowly pacing the floor with that absent look on her face.
At length the curious mood changed, but I did not venture to talk any more about music, and before very long we repaired to the eating-room, where, for the next two or three hours, we occupied ourselves very agreeably with those processes which, some new theorist informs us, constitute our chief pleasure in life.
That evening I overheard a curious little dialogue. The father of the house, as I had now grown accustomed to call our head, after rising from his seat, stood for a few minutes talking near me, while Yoletta, with her hand on his arm, waited for him to finish. When he had done speaking, and turned to her, she said in a low voice, which I, however, overheard: "Father, I shall lead to-night."
He put his hand on her head, and, looking down, studied her upturned face. "Ah, my daughter," he said with a smile, "shall I guess what has inspired you to-day? You have been listening to the passage birds. I also heard them this morning passing in flocks. And you have been following them in thought far away into those sun-bright lands where winter never comes."
"No, father," she returned, "I have only been a little way from home in thought—only to that spot where the grass has not yet grown to hide the ashes and loose mold." He stooped and kissed her forehead, and then left the room; and she, never noticing the hungry look with which I witnessed the tender caress, also went away.
That some person was supposed to lead the singing every evening I knew, but it was impossible for me ever to discover who the leader was; now, however, after overhearing this conversation, I knew that on this particular occasion it would be Yoletta, and in spite of the very poor opinion she had expressed of my musical abilities, I was prepared to admire the performance more than I had ever done before.
It commenced in the usual mysterious and indefinable manner; but after a time, when it began to shape itself into melodies, the idea possessed me that I was listening to strains once familiar, but long unheard and forgotten. At length I discovered that this was Campana's music, only not as I had ever heard it sung; for the melody of M'appar sulla tomba had been so transmuted and etherealized, as it were, that the composer himself would have listened in wondering ecstasy to the mournful strains, which had passed through the alembic of their more delicately organized minds. Listening, I remembered with an unaccountable feeling of sadness, that poor Campana had recently died in London; and almost at the same moment there came to me a remembrance of my beloved mother, whose early death was my first great grief in boyhood. All the songs I had ever heard her sing came back to me, ringing in my mind with a wonderful joy, but ever ending in a strange, funereal sadness. And not only my mother, but many a dear one besides returned "in beauty from the dust" appeared to be present—white-haired old men who had spoken treasured words to me in bygone years; schoolfellows and other boyish friends and companions; and men, too, in the prime of life, of whose premature death in this or that far-off region of the world-wide English empire I had heard from time to time. They came back to me, until the whole room seemed filled with a pale, shadowy procession, moving past me to the sound of that mysterious melody. Through all the evening it came back, in a hundred bewildering disguises, filling me with a melancholy infinitely precious, which was yet almost more than my heart could bear. Again and yet again that despairing Ah-i-me fell like a long shuddering sob from the revolving globes, and from voices far and near, to be taken up and borne yet further away by far-off, dying sounds, yet again responded to by nearer, clearer voices, in tones which seemed wrung "from the depths of some divine despair"; then to pass away, but not wholly pass, for all the hidden cells were stirred, and the vibrating air, like mysterious, invisible hands, swept the suspended strings, until the exquisite bliss and pain of it made me tremble and shed tears, as I sat there in the dark, wondering, as men will wonder at such moments, what this tempest of the soul which music wakes in us can mean: whether it is merely a growth of this our earth-life, or a something added, a divine hunger of the heart which is part of our immortality.
It seemed to me now that I had never really lived before so sweet was this new life—so healthy, and free from care and regret. The old life, which I had lived in cities, was less in my thoughts on each succeeding day; it came to me now like the memory of a repulsive dream, which I was only too glad to forget. How I had ever found that listless, worn-out, luxurious, do-nothing existence endurable, seemed a greater mystery every morning, when I went forth to my appointed task in the fields or the workhouse, so natural and so pleasant did it now seem to labor with my own hands, and to eat my bread in the sweat of my face. If there was one kind of work I preferred above all others, it was wood-cutting, and as a great deal of timber was required at this season, I was allowed to follow my own inclination. In the forest, a couple of miles from the house, several tough old giants—chiefly oak, chestnut, elm, and beech—had been marked out for destruction: in some cases because they had been scorched and riven by lightnings, and were an eyesore; in others, because time had robbed them of their glory, withering their long, desolate arms, and bestowing on their crowns that lusterless, scanty foliage which has a mournful meaning, like the thin white hairs on the bowed head of a very old man. At this distance from the house I could freely indulge my propensity for singing, albeit in that coarser tone which had failed to win favor with my new friends.
Among the grand trees, out of earshot of them all, I could shout aloud to my heart's content, rejoicing in the boisterous old English ballads, which, like John Peele's view-hallo,
"Might awaken the dead Or the fox from his lair in the morning."
Meanwhile, with the frantic energy of a Gladstone out of office, I plied my ax, its echoing strokes making fit accompaniment to my strains, until for many yards about me the ground was littered with white and yellow chips; then, exhausted with my efforts, I would sit down to rest and eat my simple midday fare, to admire myself in my deep-green and chocolate working-dress, and, above everything, to think and dream of Yoletta.
* * * * *
In my walks to and from the forest I cast many a wistful look at a solitary flat-topped hill, almost a mountain in height, which stood two or three miles from the house, north of it, on the other side of the river. From its summit I felt sure that a very extensive view of the surrounding country might be had, and I often wished to pay this hill a visit. One afternoon, while taking my lesson in reading, I mentioned this desire to Yoletta.
"Come, then, let us go there now," said she, laying the tablets aside.
I joyfully agreed: I had never walked alone with her, nor, in fact, with her at all, since that first day when she had placed her hand in mine; and now we were so much nearer in heart to each other.
She led me to a point, half a mile from the house, where the stream rushed noisily over its stony bed and formed numerous deep channels between the rocks, and one could cross over by jumping from rock to rock. Yoletta led the way, leaping airily from stone to stone, while I, anxious to escape a wetting, followed her with caution; but when I was safe over, and thought our delightful walk was about to begin, she suddenly started off towards the hill at a swift pace, which quickly left me far behind. Finding that I could not overtake her, I shouted to her to wait for me; then she stood still until I was within three or four yards Of her, when off she fled like the wind once more. At length she reached the foot of the hill, and sat down there until I joined her.
"For goodness sake, Yoletta, let us behave like rational beings and walk quietly," I was beginning, when away she went again, dancing up the mountain-side with a tireless energy that amazed as well as exasperated me. "Wait for me just once more," I screamed after her; then, half-way up the side, she stopped and sat down on a stone.
"Now my chance has come," thought I, ready to make up for insufficient speed and wind by superior cunning, which would make us equal. "I will go quietly up and catch her napping, and hold her fast by the arm until the walk is finished. So far it has been nothing but a mad chase."
Slowly I toiled on, and then, when I got near her and was just about to execute my plan, she started nimbly away, with a merry laugh, and never paused again until the summit was reached. Thoroughly tired and beaten, I sat down to rest; but presently looking up I saw her at the top, standing motionless on a stone, looking like a statue outlined against the clear blue sky. Once more I got up and pressed on until I reached her, and then sank down on the grass, overcome with fatigue.
"When you ask me to walk again, Yoletta," I panted, "I shall not move unless I have a rope round your waist to pull you back when you try to rush off in that mad fashion. You have knocked all the wind out of me; and yet I was in pretty good trim."
She laughed, and jumping to the ground, sat down at my side on the grass.
I caught her hand and held it tight. "Now you shall not escape and run away again," said I.
"You may keep my hand," she replied; "it has nothing to do up here."
"May I put it to some useful purpose—may I do what I like with it?"
"Yes, you may," then she added with a smile: "There is no thorn in it now."
I kissed it many times on the back, the palm, the wrist then bestowed a separate caress on each finger-tip.
"Why do you kiss my hand?" she asked.
"Do you not know—can you not guess? Because it is the sweetest thing I can kiss, except one other thing. Shall I tell you——"
"My face? And why do you not kiss that?"
"Oh, may I?" said I, and drawing her to me I kissed her soft cheek. "May I kiss the other cheek now?" I asked. She turned it to me, and when I had kissed it rapturously, I gazed into her eyes, which looked back, bright and unabashed, into mine. "I think—I think I made a slight mistake, Yoletta," I said. "What I meant to ask was, will you let me kiss you where I like—on your chin, for instance, or just where I like?"
"Yes; but you are keeping me too long. Kiss me as many times as you like, and then let us admire the prospect."
I drew her closer and kissed her mouth, not once nor twice, but clinging to it with all the ardor of passion, as if my lips had become glued to hers.
Suddenly she disengaged herself from me. "Why do you kiss my mouth in that violent way?" she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed. "You seem like some hungry animal that wanted to devour me."
That was, oddly enough, just how I felt. "Do you not not know, sweetest, why I kiss you in that way? Because I love you."
"I know you do, Smith. I can understand and appreciate your love without having my lips bruised."
"And do you love me, Yoletta?"
"Yes, certainly—did you not know that?"
"And is it not sweet to kiss when you love? Do you know what love is, darling? Do you love me a thousand times more than any one else in the world?"
"How extravangantly you talk!" she replied. "What strange things you say!"
"Yes, dear, because love is strange—the strangest, sweetest thing in life. It comes once only to the heart, and the one person loved is infinitely more than all others. Do you not understand that?"
"Oh no; what do you mean, Smith?"
"Is there any other person dearer to your heart than I am?"
"I love every one in the house, some more than others. Those that are closely related to me I love most."
"Oh, please say no more! You love your people with one kind of love, but me with a different love—is it not so?"
"There is only one kind of love," said she.
"Ah, you say that because you are a child yet, and do not know. You are even younger than I thought, perhaps. How old are you, dear?"
"Thirty-one years old," she replied, with the utmost gravity.
"Oh, Yoletta, what an awful cram! I mean—oh, I beg your pardon for being so rude! But—but don't you think you can draw it mild? Thirty-one—what a joke! Why, I'm an old fellow compared with you, and I'm not twenty-two yet. Do tell me what you mean, Yoletta?"
She was not listening to me, I saw: she had risen from the grass and seated herself again on the stone. For only answer to my question she pointed to the west with her hand, saying: "Look there, Smith."
I stood up and looked. The sun was near the horizon now, and partially concealed by low clouds, which were beginning to form—gray, and tinged with purple and red; but their misty edges burned with an intense yellow flame. Above, the sky was clear as blue glass, barred with pale-yellow rays, shot forth by the sinking sun, and resembling the spokes of an immense celestial wheel reaching to the zenith. The billowy earth, with its forests in deep green and many-colored, autumnal foliage, stretched far before us, here in shadow, and there flushed with rich light; while the mountain range, looming near and stupendous on our right, had changed its color from dark blue to violet.
The doubts and fears agitating my heart made me indifferent to the surpassing beauty of the scene: I turned impatiently from it to gaze again on her graceful figure, girlish still in its slim proportions; but her face, flushed with sunlight, and crowned with its dark, shining hair, seemed to me like the face of one of the immortals. The expression of rapt devotion on it made me silent, for it seemed as if she too had been touched by nature's magic, like earth and sky, and been transfigured; and waiting for the mood to pass, I stood by her side, resting my hand on her knee. By-and-by she looked down and smiled, and then I returned to the subject of her age.
"Surely, Yoletta," said I, "you were only poking fun at me—I mean, amusing yourself at my expense. You can't possibly be more than about fifteen, or sixteen at the very outside."
She smiled again and shook her head.
"Oh, I know, I can solve the riddle now. Your years are different, of course, like everything else in this latitude. A month is called a year with you, and that would make you, let me see—how much is twelve times thirty-one? Oh, hang it, nearly five hundred, I should think. Why am I such a duffer at mental arithmetic! It is just the contrary—how many twelves in thirty-one? About two and a half in round numbers, and that's absurd, as you are not a baby. Oh, I have it: your seasons are called years, of course—why didn't I see it before! No, that would make you only seven and a half. Ah, yes, I see it now: a year means two years, or two of your years—summer and winter—mean a year; and that just makes you sixteen, exactly what I had imagined. Is it not so, Yoletta?"
"I do not know what you are talking about, Smith; and I am not listening."
"Well, listen for one moment, and tell me how long does a year last?"
"It lasts from the time the leaves fall in the autumn until they fall again; and it lasts from the time the swallows come in spring until they come again."
"And seriously, honestly, you are thirty-one years old?"
"Did I not tell you so? Yes, I am thirty-one years old."
"Well, I never heard anything to equal this! Good heavens, what does it mean? I know it is awfully rude to inquire a lady's age, but what am I to do? Will you kindly tell me Edra's age?"
"Edra? I forget. Oh yes; she is sixty-three."
"Sixty-three! I'll be shot if she's a day more than twenty-eight! Idiot that I am, why can't I keep calm! But, Yoletta, how you distress me! It almost frightens me to ask another question, but do tell me how old your father is?"
"He is nearly two hundred years old—a hundred and ninety-eight, I think," she replied.
"Heavens on earth—I shall go stark, staring mad!" But I could say no more; leaving her side I sat down on a low stone at some distance, with a stunned feeling in my brain, and something like despair in my heart. That she had told me the truth I could no longer doubt for one moment: it was impossible for her crystal nature to be anything but truthful. The number of her years mattered nothing to me; the virgin sweetness of girlhood was on her lips, the freshness and glory of early youth on her forehead; the misery was that she had lived thirty-one years in the world and did not understand the words I had spoken to her—did not know what love, or passion, was! Would it always be so—would my heart consume itself to ashes, and kindle no fire in hers?
Then, as I sat there, filled with these despairing thoughts, she came down from her perch, and, dropping on her knees before me, put her arms about my neck and gazed steadily into my face. "Why are you troubled, Smith-have I said anything to hurt you?" said she. "And do you not know that you have offended me?"
"Have I? Tell me how, dearest Yoletta."
"By asking questions, and saying wild, meaningless things while I sat there watching the setting sun. It troubled me and spoiled my pleasure; but I will forgive you, Smith, because I love you. Do you not think I love you enough? You are very dear to me—dearer every day." And drawing down my face she kissed my lips.
"Darling, you make me happy again," I returned, "for if your love increases every day, the time will perhaps come when you will understand me, and be all I wish to me."
"What is it that you wish?" she questioned.
"That you should be mine—mine alone, wholly mine—and give yourself to me, body and soul."
She continued gazing up into my eyes. "In a sense we do, I suppose, give ourselves, body and soul, to those we love," she said. "And if you are not yet satisfied that I have given myself to you in that way, you must wait patiently, saying and doing nothing willfully to alienate my heart, until the time arrives when my love will be equal to your desire. Come," she added, and, rising, pulled me up by the hand.
Silently, and somewhat pensively, we started hand in hand on our walk down the hill. Presently she dropped on her knees, and opening the grass with her hands, displayed a small, slender bud, on a round, smooth stem, springing without leaves from the soil. "Do you see!" she said, looking up at me with a bright smile.
"Yes, dear, I see a bud; but I do not know anything more about it."
"Oh, Smith, do you not know that it is a rainbow lily!" And rising, she took my hand and walked on again.
"What is the rainbow lily?"
"By-and-by, in a few days, it will be in fullest bloom, and the earth will be covered with its glory."
"It is so late in the season, Yoletta! Spring is the time to see the earth covered with the glory of flowers."
"There is nothing to equal the rainbow lily, which comes when most flowers are dead, or have their bright colors tarnished. Have you lived in the moon, Smith, that I have to tell you these things?"
"No, dear, but in that island where all things, including flowers, were different."
"Ah, yes; tell me about the island."
Now "that island" was an unfortunate subject, and I was not prepared to break the resolution I had made of prudently holding my tongue about its peculiar institutions. "How can I tell you?—how could you imagine it if I were to tell you?" I said, evading the question. "You have seen the heavens black with tempests, and have felt the lightnings blinding your eyes, and have heard the crash of the thunder: could you imagine all that if you had never witnessed it, and I described it to you?"
"Then it would be useless to tell you. And now tell me about the rainbow lilies, for I am a great lover of flowers."
"Are you? Is it strange you should have a taste common to all human beings?" she returned with a pretty smile. "But it is easier to ask questions than to answer them. If you had never seen the sun setting in glory, or the midnight sky shining with myriads of stars, could you imagine these things if I described them to you?"
"That word is an echo, Smith. You must wait for the earth to bring forth her rainbow lilies, and the heart its love."
"With or without flowers, the world is a paradise to me, with you at my side, Yoletta. Ah, if you will be my Eve! How sweet it is to walk hand in hand with you in the twilight; but it was not so nice when you were scuttling from me like a wild rabbit. I'm glad to find that you do walk sometimes."
"Yes, sometimes—on solemn occasions."
"Yes? Tell me about these solemn occasions."
"This is not one of them," she replied, suddenly withdrawing her hand from mine; then with a ringing laugh, she sped from me, bounding down the hill-side with the speed and grace of a gazelle.
I instantly gave chase; but it was a very vain chase, although I put forth all my powers. Occasionally she would drop on her knees to admire some wild flower, or search for a lily bud; and whenever she came to a large stone, she would spring on to it, and stand for some time motionless, gazing at the rich hues of the afterglow; but always at my approach she would spring lightly away, escaping from me as easily as a wild bird. Tired with running, I at last gave up the hunt, and walked soberly home by myself, wondering whether that conversation on the summit of the hill, and all the curious information I had gathered from it, should make me the most miserable or the most happy being upon earth.
The question whether I had reason to feel happy or the reverse still occupied me after going to bed, and kept me awake far into the night. I put it to myself in a variety of ways, concentrating my faculties on it; but the result still remained doubtful. Mine was a curious position for a man to be in; for here was I, very much in love with Yoletta, who said that her age was thirty-one, and yet who knew of only one kind of love—that sisterly affection which she gave me so unstintingly. Of course I was surrounded with mysteries, being in the house but not of it, to the manner born; and I had already arrived at the conclusion that these mysteries could only be known to me through reading, once that accomplishment was mine. For it seemed rather a dangerous thing to ask questions, since the most innocent interrogatory might be taken as an offense, only to be expiated by solitary confinement and a bread-and-water diet; or, if not punishable in that way, it would probably be regarded as a result of the supposed collision of my head with a stone. To be reticent, observant, and studious was a safe plan; this had served to make me diligent and attentive with my lessons, and my gentle teacher had been much pleased with the progress I had made, even in a few days. Her words on the hill had now, however, filled me with anxiety, and I wanted to go a little below the surface of this strange system of life. Why was this large family—twenty-two members present, besides some absent pilgrims, as they are called—composed only of adults? Again, more curious still, why was the father of the house adorned with a majestic beard, while the other men, of various ages, had smooth faces, or, at any rate, nothing more than a slight down on the upper lip and cheeks? It was plain that they never shaved. And were these people all really brothers and sisters? So far, I had been unable, even with the most jealous watching, to detect anything like love-making or flirting; they all treated each other, as Yoletta treated me, with kindness and affection, and nothing more. And if the head of the house was in fact the father of them all—since in two centuries a man might have an indefinite number of children—who was the mother or mothers? I was never good at guessing, but the result of my cogitations was one happy idea—to ask Yoletta whether she had a living mother or not? She was my teacher, my friend and guardian in the house, and if it should turn out that the question was an unfortunate one, an offense, she would be readier to forgive than another.
Accordingly, next day, as soon as we were alone together I put the question to her, although not without a nervous qualm.
She looked at me with the greatest surprise. "Do you mean to say," she answered, "that you do not know I have a mother—that there is a mother of the house?"
"How should I know, Yoletta?" I returned. "I have not heard you address any one as mother; besides, how is one to know anything in a strange place unless he is told?"
"How strange, then, that you never asked till now! There is a mother of the house—the mother of us all, of you since you were made one of us; and it happens, too, that I am her daughter—her only child. You have not seen her because you have never asked to be taken to her; and she is not among us because of her illness. For very long she has been afflicted with a malady from which she cannot recover, and for a whole year she has not left the Mother's Room."
She spoke with eyes cast down, in a low and very sad voice. It was only too plain now that in my ignorance I had been guilty of a grave breach of the etiquette or laws of the house; and anxious to repair my fault, also to know more of the one female in this mysterious community who had loved, or at all events had known marriage, I asked if I might see her.
"Yes," she answered, after some hesitation, still standing with eyes cast down. Then suddenly, bursting into tears, she exclaimed: "Oh, Smith, how could you be in the world and not know that there is a mother in every house! How could you travel and not know that when you enter a house, after greeting the father, you first of all ask to be taken to the mother to worship her and feel her hand on your head? Did you not see that we were astonished and grieved at your silence when you came, and we waited in vain for you to speak?"
I was dumb with shame at her words. How well I remembered that first evening in the house, when I could not but see that something was expected of me, yet never ventured to ask for enlightment!
Presently, recovering from her tears, she went from the room, and, left alone, I was more than ever filled with wonder at what she had told me. I had not imagined that she had come into the world without a mother; nevertheless, the fact that this passionless girl, who had told me that there was only one kind of love, was the daughter of a woman actually living in the house, of whose existence I had never before heard, except in an indirect way which I failed to understand, seemed like a dream to me. Now I was about to see this hidden woman, and the interview would reveal something to me, for I would discover in her face and conversation whether she was in the same mystic state of mind as the others, which made them seem like the dwellers in some better place than this poor old sinful, sorrowful world. My wishes, however, were not to be gratified, for presently Yoletta returned and said that her mother did not desire to see me then. She looked so distressed when she told me this, putting her white arms about my neck as if to console me for my disappointment, that I refrained from pressing her with questions, and for several days nothing more was spoken between us on the subject.
At length, one day when our lesson was over, with an expression of mingled pleasure and anxiety on her face, she rose and took my hand, saying, "Come."
I knew she was going to take me to her mother, and rose to obey her gladly, for since the conversation I had had with her the desire to know the lady of the house had given me no peace.
Leaving the music room, we entered another apartment, of the same nave-like form, but vaster, or, at all events, considerably longer. There I started and stood still, amazed at the scene before me. The light, which found entrance through tall, narrow windows, was dim, but sufficient to show the whole room with everything in it, ending at the further extremity at a flight of broad stone steps. The middle part of the floor, running the entire length of the apartment, was about twenty feet wide, but on either side of this passage, which was covered with mosaic, the floor was raised; and on this higher level I saw, as I imagined, a great company of men and women, singly and in groups, standing or seated on great stone chairs in various positions and attitudes. Presently I perceived that these were not living beings, but life-like effigies of stone, the drapery they were represented as wearing being of many different richly-colored stones, having the appearance of real garments. So natural did the hair look, that only when I ascended the steps and touched the head of one of the statues was I convinced that it was also of stone. Even more wonderful in their resemblance to life were the eyes, which seemed to return my half-fearful glances with a calm, questioning scrutiny I found it hard to endure. I hurried on after my guide without speaking, but when I got to the middle of the room I paused involuntarily once more, so profoundly did one of the statues impress me. It was of a woman of a majestic figure and proud, beautiful face, with an abundance of silvery-white hair. She sat bending forward with her eyes fixed on mine as I advanced, one hand pressed to her bosom, while with the other she seemed in the act of throwing back her white unbound tresses from her forehead. There was, I thought, a look of calm, unbending pride on the face, but on coming closer this expression disappeared, giving place to one so wistful and pleading, so charged with subtle pain, that I stood gazing like one fascinated, until Yoletta took my hand and gently drew me away. Still, in spite of the absorbing nature of the matter on which I was bound, that strange face continued to haunt me, and glancing up and down through that long array of calm-browed, beautiful women, I could see no one that was like it.
Arrived at the end of the gallery, we ascended the broad stone steps, and came to a landing twenty or thirty feet above the level of the floor we had traversed. Here Yoletta pushed a glass door aside and ushered me into another apartment—the Mother's Room. It was spacious, and, unlike the gallery, well-lighted; the air in it was also warm and balmy, and seemed charged with a subtle aroma. But now my whole attention was concentrated on a group of persons before me, and chiefly on its central figure—the woman I had so much desired to see. She was seated, leaning back in a somewhat listless attitude, on a very large, low, couch-like seat, covered with a soft, violet-colored material. My very first glance at her face revealed to me that she differed in appearance and expression from other inmates of the house: one reason was that she was extremely pale, and bore on her worn countenance the impress of long-continued suffering; but that was not all. She wore her hair, which fell unbound on her shoulders, longer than the others, and her eyes looked larger, and of a deeper green. There was something wonderfully fascinating to me in that pale, suffering face, for, in spite of suffering, it was beautiful and loving; but dearer than all these things to my mind were the marks of passion it exhibited, the petulant, almost scornful mouth, and the half-eager, half-weary expression of the eyes, for these seemed rather to belong to that imperfect world from which I had been severed, and which was still dear to my unregenerate heart. In other respects also she differed from the rest of the women, her dress being a long, pale-blue robe, embroidered with saffron-colored flowers and foliage down the middle, and also on the neck and the wide sleeves. On the couch at her side sat the father of the house, holding her hand and talking in low tones to her; two of the young women sat at her feet on cushions, engaged on embroidery work, while another stood behind her; one of the young men was also there, and was just now showing her a sketch, and apparently explaining something in it.
I had expected to find a sick, feeble lady, in a dimly-lighted chamber, with perhaps one attendant at her side; now, coming so unexpectedly before this proud-looking, beautiful woman, with so many about her, I was completely abashed, and, feeling too confused to say anything, stood silent and awkward in her presence.
"This is our stranger, Chastel," said the old man to her, at the same time bestowing an encouraging look on me.
She turned from the sketch she had been studying, and raising herself slightly from her half-recumbent attitude, fixed her dark eyes on me with some interest.
"I do not see why you were so much impressed," she remarked after a while. "There is nothing very strange in him after all."
I felt my face grow hot with shame and anger, for she seemed to look on me and speak of me—not to me—as if I had been some strange, semi-human creature, discovered in the woods, and brought in as a great curiosity.
"No; it was not his countenance, only his curious garments and his words that astonished us," said the father in reply.
She made no answer to this, but presently, addressing me directly, said: "You were a long time in the house before you expressed a wish to see me."
I found my speech then—a wretched, hesitating speech, for which I hated myself—and replied, that I had asked to be allowed to see her as soon as I had been informed of her existence.
She turned on the father a look of surprise and inquiry.
"You must remember, Chastel," said he, "that he comes to us from some strange, distant island, having customs different from ours—a thing I had never heard of before. I can give you no other explanation."
Her lip curled, and then, turning to me, she continued: "If there are houses in your island without mothers in them, it is not so elsewhere in the world. That you went out to travel so poorly provided with knowledge is a marvel to us; and as I have had the pain of telling you this, I must regret that you ever left your own home."
I could make no reply to these words, which fell on me like whip-strokes; and looking at the other faces, I could see no sympathy in them for me; as they looked at her—their mother—and listened to her words, the expression they wore was love and devotion to her only, reminding me a little of the angel faces on Guide's canvas of the "Coronation of the Virgin."
"Go now," she presently added in a petulant tone; "I am tired, and wish to rest"; and Yoletta, who had been standing silently by me all the time, took my hand and led me from the room.
With eyes cast down I passed through the gallery, paying no attention to its strange, stony occupants; and leaving my gentle conductress without a word at the door of the music-room, I hurried away from the house. For I could feel love and compassion in the touch of the dear girl's hand, and it seemed to me that if she had spoken one word, my overcharged heart would have found vent in tears. I only wished to be alone, to brood in secret on my pain and the bitterness of defeat; for it was plain that the woman I had so wished to see, and, since seeing her, so wished to be allowed to love, felt towards me nothing but contempt and aversion, and that from no fault of my own, she, whose friendship I most needed, was become my enemy in the house.
My steps took me to the river. Following its banks for about a mile, I came at last to a grove of stately old trees, and there I seated myself on a large twisted root projecting over the water. To this sequestered spot I had come to indulge my resentful feelings; for here I could speak out my bitterness aloud, if I felt so minded, where there were no witnesses to hear me. I had restrained those unmanly tears, so nearly shed in Yoletta's presence, and kept back by dark thoughts on the way; now I was sitting quietly by myself, safe from observation, safe even from that sympathy my bruised spirit could not suffer.
Scarcely had I seated myself before a great brown animal, with black eyes, round and fierce, rose to the surface of the stream half a dozen yards from my feet; then quickly catching sight of me, it plunged noisily again under water, breaking the clear image reflected there with a hundred ripples. I waited for the last wavelet to fade away, but when the surface was once more still and smooth as dark glass, I began to be affected by the profounded silence and melancholy of nature, and by a something proceeding from nature—phantom, emanation, essence, I know not what. My soul, not my sense, perceived it, standing with finger on lips, there, close to me; its feet resting on the motionless water, which gave no reflection of its image, the clear amber sunlight passing undimmed through its substance. To my soul its spoken "Hush!" was audible, and again, and yet again, it said "Hush!" until the tumult in me was still, and I could not think my own thoughts. I could thereafter only listen, breathless, straining my senses to catch some natural sound, however faint. Far away in the dim distance, in some blue pasture, a cow was lowing, and the recurring sound passed me like the humming flight of an insect, then fainter still, like an imagined sound, until it ceased. A withered leaf fell from the tree-top; I heard it fluttering downwards, touching other leaves in its fall until the silent grass received it. Then, as I listened for another leaf, suddenly from overhead came the brief gushing melody of some late singer, a robin-like sound, ringing out clear and distinct as a flourish on a clarionet: brilliant, joyous, and unexpected, yet in keeping with that melancholy quiet, affecting the mind like a spray of gold and scarlet embroidery on a pale, neutral ground. The sun went down, and in setting, kindled the boles of the old trees here and there into pillars of red fire, while others in deeper shade looked by contrast like pillars of ebony; and wherever the foliage was thinnest, the level rays shining through imparted to the sere leaves a translucence and splendor that was like the stained glass in the windows of some darkening cathedral. All along the river a white mist began to rise, a slight wind sprang up and the vapor drifted, drowning the reeds and bushes, and wreathing its ghostly arms about the old trees: and watching the mist, and listening to the "hallowed airs and symphonies" whispered by the low wind, I felt that there was no longer any anger in my heart. Nature, and something in and yet more than nature, had imparted her "soft influences" and healed her "wandering and distempered child" until he could no more be a "jarring and discordant thing" in her sweet and sacred presence.
When I looked up a change had come over the scene: the round, full moon had risen, silvering the mist, and filling the wide, dim earth with a new mysterious glory. I rose from my seat and returned to the house, and with that new insight and comprehension which had come to me—that message, as I could not but regard it—I now felt nothing but love and sympathy for the suffering woman who had wounded me with her unmerited displeasure, and my only desire was to show my devotion to her.
As I approached the building, soft strains floating far out into the night-air became audible, and I knew that the sweet spirit of music, to which they were all so devoted, was present with them. After listening for awhile in the shadow of the portico I went in, and, anxious to avoid disturbing the singers, stole away into a dusky corner, where I sat down by myself. Yoletta had, however, seen me enter, for presently she came to me.
"Why did you not come in to supper, Smith?" she said. "And why do you look so sad?"
"Do you need to ask, Yoletta? Ah, it would have made me so happy if I could have won your mother's affection! If she only knew how much I wish for it, and how much I sympathize with her! But she will never like me, and all I wished to say to her must be left unsaid."
"No, not so," she said. "Come with me to her now: if you feel like that, she will be kind to you—how should it be otherwise?"
I greatly feared that she advised me to take an imprudent step; but she was my guide, my teacher and friend in the house, and I resolved to do as she wished. There were no lights in the long gallery when we entered it again, only the white moonbeams coming through the tall windows here and there lit up a column or a group of statues, which threw long, black shadows on floor and Wall, giving the chamber a weird appearance. Once more, when I reached the middle of the room, I paused, for there before me, ever bending forward, sat that wonderful woman of stone, the moonlight streaming full on her pale, wistful face and silvery hair.
"Tell me, Yoletta, who is this?" I whispered. "Is it a statue of some one who lived in this house?"
"Yes; you can read about her in the history of the house, and in this inscription on the stone. She was a mother, and her name was Isarte."
"But why has she that strange, haunting expression on her face? Was she unhappy?"
"Oh, can you not see that she was unhappy! She endured many sorrows, and the crowning calamity of her life was the loss of seven loved sons. They were away in the mountains together, and did not return when expected: for many years she waited for tidings of them. It was conjectured that a great rock had fallen on and crushed them beneath it. Grief for her lost children made her hair white, and gave that expression to her face."
"And when did this happen?"
"Over two thousand years ago."
"Oh, then it is a very old family tradition. But the statue—when was that made and placed here?"
"She had it made and placed here herself. It was her wish that the grief she endured should be remembered in the house for all time, for no one had ever suffered like her; and the inscription, which she caused to be put on the stone, says that if there shall ever come to a mother in the house a sorrow exceeding hers, the statue shall be removed from its place and destroyed, and the fragments buried in the earth with all forgotten things, and the name of Isarte forgotten in the house."
It oppressed my mind to think of so long a period of time during which that unutterably sad face had gazed down on so many generations of the living. "It is most strange!" I murmured. "But do you think it right, Yoletta, that the grief of one person should be perpetuated like that in the house; for who can look on this face without pain, even when it is remembered that the sorrow it expresses ended so many centuries ago?"