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A CRYSTAL AGE

BY W. H. HUDSON




PREFACE

_Romances of the future, however fantastic they may be, have for most
of us a perennial if mild interest, since they are born of a very common
feeling - a sense of dissatisfaction with the existing order of things,
combined with a vague faith in or hope of a better one to come. The
picture put before us is false; we knew it would be false before looking
at it, since we cannot imagine what is unknown any more than we can
build without materials. Our mental atmosphere surrounds and shuts us in
like our own skins; no one can boast that he has broken out of that
prison. The vast, unbounded prospect lies before us, but, as the poet
mournfully adds, "clouds and darkness rest upon it." Nevertheless we
cannot suppress all curiosity, or help asking one another, What is your
dream - your ideal? What is your News from Nowhere, or, rather, what is
the result of the little shake your hand has given to the old pasteboard
toy with a dozen bits of colored glass for contents? And, most important
of all, can you present it in a narrative or romance which will enable
me to pass an idle hour not disagreeably? How, for instance, does it
compare in this respect with other prophetic books on the shelf?_

_I am not referring to living authors; least of all to that flamingo of
letters who for the last decade or so has been a wonder to our island
birds. For what could I say of him that is not known to every one - that
he is the tallest of fowls, land or water, of a most singular shape, and
has black-tipped crimson wings folded under his delicate rose-colored
plumage? These other books referred to, written, let us say, from thirty
or forty years to a century or two ago, amuse us in a way their poor
dead authors never intended. Most amusing are the dead ones who take
themselves seriously, whose books are pulpits quaintly carved and
decorated with precious stones and silken canopies in which they stand
and preach to or at their contemporaries._

_In like manner, in going through this book of mine after so many years I
am amused at the way it is colored by the little cults and crazes, and
modes of thought of the 'eighties of the last century. They were so
important then, and now, if remembered at all, they appear so trivial!
It pleases me to be diverted in this way at "A Crystal Age" - to find, in
fact, that I have not stood still while the world has been moving._

_This criticism refers to the case, the habit, of the book rather than
to its spirit, since when we write we do, as the red man thought, impart
something of our souls to the paper, and it is probable that if I were
to write a new dream of the future it would, though in some respects
very different from this, still be a dream and picture of the human race
in its forest period._

_Alas that in this case the wish cannot induce belief! For now I remember
another thing which Nature said - that earthly excellence can come in no
way but one, and the ending of passion and strife is the beginning of
decay. It is indeed a hard saying, and the hardest lesson we can learn
of her without losing love and bidding good-by forever to hope._

W. H. H.






A CRYSTAL AGE


Chapter 1

I do not quite know how it happened, my recollection of the whole matter
ebbing in a somewhat clouded condition. I fancy I had gone somewhere on
a botanizing expedition, but whether at home or abroad I don't know. At
all events, I remember that I had taken up the study of plants with a
good deal of enthusiasm, and that while hunting for some variety in the
mountains I sat down to rest on the edge of a ravine. Perhaps it was on
the ledge of an overhanging rock; anyhow, if I remember rightly, the
ground gave way all about me, precipitating me below. The fall was a
very considerable one - probably thirty or forty feet, or more, and I was
rendered unconscious. How long I lay there under the heap of earth and
stones carried down in my fall it is impossible to say: perhaps a long
time; but at last I came to myself and struggled up from the
_debris_, like a mole coming to the surface of the earth to feel
the genial sunshine on his dim eyeballs. I found myself standing (oddly
enough, on all fours) in an immense pit created by the overthrow of a
gigantic dead tree with a girth of about thirty or forty feet. The tree
itself had rolled down to the bottom of the ravine; but the pit in which
it had left the huge stumps of severed roots was, I found, situated in a
gentle slope at the top of the bank! How, then, I could have fallen
seemingly so far from no height at all, puzzled me greatly: it looked as
if the solid earth had been indulging in some curious transformation
pranks during those moments or minutes of insensibility. Another
singular circumstance was that I had a great mass of small fibrous
rootlets tightly woven about my whole person, so that I was like a
colossal basket-worm in its case, or a big man-shaped bottle covered
with wicker-work. It appeared as if the roots had _grown_ round me!
Luckily they were quite sapless and brittle, and without bothering my
brains too much about the matter, I set to work to rid myself of them.
After stripping the woody covering off, I found that my tourist suit of
rough Scotch homespun had not suffered much harm, although the cloth
exuded a damp, moldy smell; also that my thick-soled climbing boots had
assumed a cracked rusty appearance as if I had been engaged in some
brick-field operations; while my felt hat was in such a discolored and
battered condition that I felt almost ashamed to put it on my head. My
watch was gone; perhaps I had not been wearing it, but my pocket-book in
which I had my money was safe in my breast pocket.

Glad and grateful at having escaped with unbroken bones from such a
dangerous accident, I set out walking along the edge of the ravine,
which soon broadened to a valley running between two steep hills; and
then, seeing water at the bottom and feeling very dry, I ran down the
slope to get a drink. Lying flat on my chest to slake my thirst animal
fashion, I was amazed at the reflection the water gave back of my face:
it was, skin and hair, thickly encrusted with clay and rootlets! Having
taken a long drink, I threw off my clothes to have a bath; and after
splashing about for half an hour managed to rid my skin of its
accumulations of dirt. While drying in the wind I shook the loose sand
and clay from my garments, then dressed, and, feeling greatly refreshed,
proceeded on my walk.

For an hour or so I followed the valley in its many windings, but,
failing to see any dwelling-place, I ascended a hill to get a view of
the surrounding country. The prospect which disclosed itself when I had
got a couple of hundred feet above the surrounding level, appeared
unfamiliar. The hills among which I had been wandering were now behind
me; before me spread a wide rolling country, beyond which rose a
mountain range resembling in the distance blue banked-up clouds with
summits and peaks of pearly whiteness. Looking on this scene I could
hardly refrain from shouting with joy, so glad did the sunlit expanse of
earth, and the pure exhilarating mountain breeze, make me feel. The
season was late summer - that was plain to see; the ground was moist, as
if from recent showers, and the earth everywhere had that intense living
greenness with which it reclothes itself when the greater heats are
over; but the foliage of the woods was already beginning to be touched
here and there with the yellow and russet hues of decay. A more tranquil
and soul-satisfying scene could not be imagined: the dear old mother
earth was looking her very best; while the shifting golden sunlight, the
mysterious haze in the distance, and the glint of a wide stream not very
far off, seemed to spiritualize her "happy autumn fields," and bring
them into a closer kinship with the blue over-arching sky. There was one
large house or mansion in sight, but no town, nor even a hamlet, and not
one solitary spire. In vain I scanned the horizon, waiting impatiently
to see the distant puff of white steam from some passing engine. This
troubled me not a little, for I had no idea that I had drifted so far
from civilization in my search for specimens, or whatever it was that
brought me to this pretty, primitive wilderness. Not quite a wilderness,
however, for there, within a short hour's walk of the hill, stood the
one great stone mansion, close to the river I had mentioned. There were
also horses and cows in sight, and a number of scattered sheep were
grazing on the hillside beneath me.

Strange to relate, I met with a little misadventure on account of the
sheep - an animal which one is accustomed to regard as of a timid and
inoffensive nature. When I set out at a brisk pace to walk to the house
I have spoken of, in order to make some inquiries there, a few of the
sheep that happened to be near began to bleat loudly, as if alarmed, and
by and by they came hurrying after me, apparently in a great state of
excitement. I did not mind them much, but presently a pair of horses,
attracted by their bleatings, also seemed struck at my appearance, and
came at a swift gallop to within twenty yards of me. They were
magnificent-looking brutes, evidently a pair of well-groomed carriage
horses, for their coats, which were of a fine bronze color, sparkled
wonderfully in the sunshine. In other respects they were very unlike
carriage animals, for they had tails reaching to the ground, like
funeral horses, and immense black leonine manes, which gave them a
strikingly bold and somewhat formidable appearance. For some moments
they stood with heads erect, gazing fixedly at me, and then
simultaneously delivered a snort of defiance or astonishment, so loud
and sudden that it startled me like the report of a gun. This tremendous
equine blast brought yet another enemy on the field in the shape of a
huge milk-white bull with long horns: a very noble kind of animal, but
one which I always prefer to admire from behind a hedge, or at a
distance through a field-glass. Fortunately his wrathful mutterings gave
me timely notice of his approach, and without waiting to discover his
intentions, I incontinently fled down the slope to the refuge of a grove
or belt of trees clothing the lower portion of the hillside. Spent and
panting from my run, I embraced a big tree, and turning to face the foe,
found that I had not been followed: sheep, horses, and bull were all
grouped together just where I had left them, apparently holding a
consultation, or comparing notes.

The trees where I had sought shelter were old, and grew here and there,
singly or in scattered groups: it was a pretty wilderness of mingled
tree, shrub and flower. I was surprised to find here some very large and
ancient-looking fig-trees, and numbers of wasps and flies were busy
feeding on a few over-ripe figs on the higher branches. Honey-bees also
roamed about everywhere, extracting sweets from the autumn bloom, and
filling the sunny glades with a soft, monotonous murmur of sound.
Walking on full of happy thoughts and a keen sense of the sweetness of
life pervading me, I presently noticed that a multitude of small birds
were gathering about me, flitting through the trees overhead and the
bushes on either hand, but always keeping near me, apparently as much
excited at my presence as if I had been a gigantic owl, or some such
unnatural monster. Their increasing numbers and incessant excited
chirping and chattering at first served to amuse, but in the end began
to irritate me. I observed, too, that the alarm was spreading, and that
larger birds, usually shy of men - pigeons, jays, and magpies, I fancied
they were - now began to make their appearance. Could it be, thought I
with some concern, that I had wandered into some uninhabited wilderness,
to cause so great a commotion among the little feathered people? I very
soon dismissed this as an idle thought, for one does not find houses,
domestic animals, and fruit-trees in desert places. No, it was simply
the inherent cantankerousness of little birds which caused them to annoy
me. Looking about on the ground for something to throw at them, I found
in the grass a freshly-fallen walnut, and, breaking the shell, I quickly
ate the contents. Never had anything tasted so pleasant to me before!
But it had a curious effect on me, for, whereas before eating it I had
not felt hungry, I now seemed to be famishing, and began excitedly
searching about for more nuts. They were lying everywhere in the
greatest abundance; for, without knowing it, I had been walking through
a grove composed in large part of old walnut-trees. Nut after nut was
picked up and eagerly devoured, and I must have eaten four or five dozen
before my ravenous appetite was thoroughly appeased. During this feast I
had paid no attention to the birds, but when my hunger was over I began
again to feel annoyed at their trivial persecutions, and so continued to
gather the fallen nuts to throw at them. It amused and piqued me at the
same time to see how wide of the mark my missiles went. I could hardly
have hit a haystack at a distance of ten yards. After half an hour's
vigorous practice my right hand began to recover its lost cunning, and I
was at last greatly delighted when of my nuts went hissing like a bullet
through the leaves, not further than a yard from the wren, or whatever
the little beggar was, I had aimed at. Their Impertinences did not like
this at all; they began to find out that I was a rather dangerous person
to meddle with: their ranks were broken, they became demoralized and
scattered, in all directions, and I was finally left master of the
field.

"Dolt that I am," I suddenly exclaimed, "to be fooling away my time when
the nearest railway station or hotel is perhaps twenty miles away."

I hurried on, but when I got to the end of the grove, on the green sward
near some laurel and juniper bushes, I came on an excavation apparently
just made, the loose earth which had been dug out looking quite fresh
and moist. The hole or foss was narrow, about five feet deep and seven
feet long, and looked, I imagined, curiously like a grave. A few yards
away was a pile of dry brushwood, and some faggots bound together with
ropes of straw, all apparently freshly cut from the neighboring bushes.
As I stood there, wondering what these things meant, I happened to
glance away in the direction of the house where I intended to call,
which was not now visible owing to an intervening grove of tall trees,
and was surprised to discover a troop of about fifteen persons advancing
along the valley in my direction. Before them marched a tall
white-bearded old man; next came eight men, bearing a platform on their
shoulders with some heavy burden resting upon it; and behind these
followed the others. I began to think that they were actually carrying a
corpse, with the intention of giving it burial in that very pit beside
which I was standing; and, although it looked most unlike a funeral, for
no person in the procession wore black, the thought strengthened to a
conviction when I became able to distinguish a recumbent, human-like
form in a shroud-like covering on the platform. It seemed altogether a
very unusual proceeding, and made me feel extremely uncomfortable; so
much so that I considered it prudent to step back behind the bushes,
where I could watch the doings of the processionists without being
observed.

Led by the old man - who carried, suspended by thin chains, a large
bronze censer, or brazier rather, which sent out a thin continuous
wreath of smoke - they came straight on to the pit; and after depositing
their burden on the grass, remained standing for some minutes,
apparently to rest after their walk, all conversing together, but in
subdued tones, so that I could not catch their words, although standing
within fifteen yards of the grave. The uncoffined corpse, which seemed
that of a full-grown man, was covered with a white cloth, and rested on
a thick straw mat, provided with handles along the sides. On these
things, however, I bestowed but a hasty glance, so profoundly absorbed
had I become in watching the group of living human beings before me; for
they were certainly utterly unlike any fellow-creatures I had ever
encountered before. The old man was tall and spare, and from his
snowy-white majestic beard I took him to be about seventy years old; but
he was straight as an arrow, and his free movements and elastic tread
were those of a much younger man. His head was adorned with a dark red
skull-cap, and he wore a robe covering the whole body and reaching to
the ankles, of a deep yellow or rhubarb color; but his long wide sleeves
under his robe were dark red, embroidered with yellow flowers. The other
men had no covering on their heads, and their luxuriant hair, worn to
the shoulders, was, in most cases, very dark. Their garments were also
made in a different fashion, and consisted of a kilt-like dress, which
came half-way to the knees, a pale yellow shirt fitting tight to the
skin, and over it a loose sleeveless vest. The entire legs were cased in
stockings, curious in pattern and color. The women wore garments
resembling those of the men, but the tight-fitting sleeves reached only
half-way to the elbow, the rest of the arm being bare; and the
outergarment was all in one piece, resembling a long sleeveless jacket,
reaching below the hips. The color of their dresses varied, but in most
cases different shades of blue and subdued yellow predominated. In all,
the stockings showed deeper and richer shades of color than the other
garments; and in their curiously segmented appearance, and in the
harmonious arrangement of the tints, they seemed to represent the skins
of pythons and other beautifully variegated serpents. All wore low shoes
of an orange-brown color, fitting closely so as to display the shape of
the foot.

From the moment of first seeing them I had had no doubt about the sex of
the tall old leader of the procession, his shining white beard being as
conspicuous at a distance as a shield or a banner; but looking at the
others I was at first puzzled to know whether the party was composed of
men or women, or of both, so much did they resemble each other in
height, in their smooth faces, and in the length of their hair. On a
closer inspection I noticed the difference of dress of the sexes; also
that the men, if not sterner, had faces at all events less mild and soft
in expression than the women, and also a slight perceptible down on the
cheeks and upper lip.

After a first hasty survey of the group in general, I had eyes for only
one person in it - a fine graceful girl about fourteen years old, and the
youngest by far of the party. A description of this girl will give some
idea, albeit a very poor one, of the faces and general appearance of
this strange people I had stumbled on. Her dress, if a garment so brief
can be called a dress, showed a slaty-blue pattern on a straw-colored
ground, while her stockings were darker shades of the same colors. Her
eyes, at the distance I stood from her, appeared black, or nearly black,
but when seen closely they proved to be green - a wonderfully pure,
tender sea-green; and the others, I found, had eyes of the same hue. Her
hair fell to her shoulders; but it was very wavy or curly, and strayed
in small tendril-like tresses over her neck, forehead and cheeks; in
color it was golden black - that is, black in shade, but when touched
with sunlight every hair became a thread of shining red-gold; and in
some lights it looked like raven-black hair powdered with gold-dust. As
to her features, the forehead was broader and lower, the nose larger,
and the lips more slender, than in our most beautiful female types. The
color was also different, the delicately molded mouth being purple-red
instead of the approved cherry or coral hue; while the complexion was a
clear dark, and the color, which mantled the cheeks in moments of
excitement, was a dim or dusky rather than a rosy red.

The exquisite form and face of this young girl, from the first moment of
seeing her, produced a very deep impression; and I continued watching
her every movement and gesture with an intense, even a passionate
interest. She had a quantity of flowers in her hand; but these sweet
emblems, I observed, were all gayly colored, which seemed strange, for
in most places white flowers are used in funeral ceremonies. Some of the
men who had followed the body carried in their hands broad,
three-cornered bronze shovels, with short black handles, and these they
had dropped upon the grass on arriving at the grave. Presently the old
man stooped and drew the covering back from the dead one's face - a
rigid, marble-white face set in a loose mass of black hair. The others
gathered round, and some standing, others kneeling, bent on the still
countenance before them a long earnest gaze, as if taking an eternal
farewell of one they had deeply loved. At this moment the the beautiful
girl I have described all at once threw herself with a sobbing cry on
her knees before the corpse, and, stooping, kissed the face with
passionate grief. "Oh, my beloved, must we now leave you alone forever!"
she cried between the sobs that shook her whole frame. "Oh, my love - my
love - my love, will you come back to us no more!"

The others all appeared deeply affected at her grief, and presently a
young man standing by raised her from the ground and drew her gently
against his side, where for some minutes she continued convulsively
weeping. Some of the other men now passed ropes through the handles of
the straw mat on which the corpse rested, and raising it from the
platform lowered it into the foss. Each person in turn then advanced and
dropped some flowers into the grave, uttering the one word "Farewell" as
they did so; after which the loose earth was shoveled in with the bronze
implements. Over the mound the hurdle on which the straw mat had rested
was then placed, the dry brushwood and faggots heaped over it and
ignited with a coal from the brazier. White smoke and crackling flames
issued anon from the pile, and in a few moments the whole was in a
fierce blaze.

Standing around they all waited in silence until the fire had burnt
itself out; then the old man advancing stretched his arms above the
white and still smoking ashes and cried in a loud voice: "Farewell
forever, O well beloved son! With deep sorrow and tears we have given
you back to Earth; but not until she has made the sweet grass and
flowers grow again on this spot, scorched and made desolate with fire,
shall our hearts be healed of their wound and forget their grief."






Chapter 2

The thrilling, pathetic tone in which these words were uttered affected
me not a little; and when the ceremony was over I continued staring
vacantly at the speaker, ignorant of the fact that the beautiful young
girl had her wide-open, startled eyes fixed on the bush which, I vainly
imagined, concealed me from view.

All at once she cried out: "Oh, father, look there! Who is that
strange-looking man watching us from behind the bushes?"

They all turned, and then I felt that fourteen or fifteen pairs of very
keen eyes were on me, seeing me very plainly indeed, for in my curiosity
and excitement I had come out from the thicker bushes to place myself
behind a ragged, almost leafless shrub, which afforded the merest
apology for a shelter. Putting a bold face on the matter, although I did
not feel very easy, I came out and advanced to them, removing my
battered old hat on the way, and bowing repeatedly to the assembled
company. My courteous salutation was not returned; but all, with
increasing astonishment pictured on their faces, continued staring at me
as if they were looking on some grotesque apparition. Thinking it best
to give an account of myself at once, and to apologize for intruding on
their mysteries, I addressed myself to the old man:

"I really beg your pardon," I said, "for having disturbed you at such an
inconvenient time, and while you are engaged in these - these solemn
rites; but I assure you, sir, it has been quite accidental. I happened
to be walking here when I saw you coming, and thought it best to step
out of the way until - well, until the funeral was over. The fact is, I
met with a serious accident in the mountains over there. I fell down
into a ravine, and a great heap of earth and stones fell on and stunned
me, and I do not know how long I lay there before I recovered my senses.


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