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    Chapter 13

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    Chapter 14
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    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?"

    "But she was a mother, Smith, do you not understand? It would not be
    right for us to wish to have our griefs remembered for ever, to cause
    sorrow to those who succeed us; but a mother is different: her wishes
    are sacred, and what she wills is right."

    Her words surprised me not a little, for I had heard of infallible men,
    but never of women; moreover, the woman I was now going to see was also
    a "mother in the house," a successor to this very Isarte. Fearing that I
    had touched on a dangerous topic, I said no more, and proceeding on our
    way, we soon reached the mother's room, the large glass door of which
    now stood wide open. In the pale light of the moon--for there was no
    other in the room--we found Chastel on the couch where I had seen her
    before, but she was lying extended at full length now, and had only one
    attendant with her.

    Yoletta approached her, and, stooping, touched her lips to the pale,
    still face. "Mother," she said, "I have brought Smith again; he is
    anxious to say something to you, if you will hear him."

    "Yes, I will hear him," she replied. "Let him sit near me; and now go
    back, for your voice is needed. And you may also leave me now," she
    added, addressing the other lady.

    The two then departed together, and I proceeded to seat myself on a
    cushion beside the couch.

    "What is it you wish to say to me?" she asked. The words were not very
    encouraging, but her voice sounded gentler now, and I at once began.
    "Hush," she said, before I had spoken two words. "Wait until this
    ends--I am listening to Yoletta's voice."

    Through the long, dusky gallery and the open doors soft strains of music
    were floating to us, and now, mingling with the others, a clearer,
    bell-like voice was heard, which soared to greater heights; but soon
    this ceased to be distinguishable, and then she sighed and addressed me
    again. "Where have you been all the evening, for you were not at
    supper?"

    "Did you know that?" I asked in surprise.

    "Yes, I know everything that passes in the house. Reading and work of
    all kinds are a pain and weariness. The only thing left to me is to
    listen to what others do or say, and to know all their comings and
    goings. My life is nothing now but a shadow of other people's lives."

    "Then," I said, "I must tell you how I spent the time after seeing you
    to-day; for I was alone, and no other person can say what I did. I went
    away along the river until I came to the grove of great trees on the
    bank, and there I sat until the moon rose, with my heart full of
    unspeakable pain and bitterness."

    "What made you have those feelings?"

    "When I heard of you, and saw you, my heart was drawn to you, and I
    wished above all things in the world to be allowed to love and serve
    you, and to have a share in your affection; but your looks and words
    expressed only contempt and dislike towards me. Would it not have been
    strange if I had not felt extremely unhappy?"

    "Oh," she replied, "now I can understand the reason of the surprise your
    words have often caused in the house! Your very feelings seem unlike
    ours. No other person would have experienced the feelings you speak of
    for such a cause. It is right to repent your faults, and to bear the
    burden of them quietly; but it is a sign of an undisciplined spirit to
    feel bitterness, and to wish to cast the blame of your suffering on
    another. You forget that I had reason to be deeply offended with you.
    You also forget my continual suffering, which sometimes makes me seem
    harsh and unkind against my will."

    "Your words seem only sweet and gracious now," I returned. "They have
    lifted a great weight from my heart, and I wish I could repay you for
    them by taking some portion of your suffering on myself."

    "It is right that you should have that feeling, but idle to express it,"
    she answered gravely. "If such wishes could be fulfilled my sufferings
    would have long ceased, since any one of my children would gladly lay
    down his life to procure me ease."

    To this speech, which sounded like another rebuke, I made no reply.

    "Oh, this is bitterness indeed--a bitterness you cannot know," she
    resumed after a while. "For you and for others there is always the
    refuge of death from continued sufferings: the brief pang of
    dissolution, bravely met, is nothing in comparison with a lingering
    agony like mine, with its long days and longer nights, extending to
    years, and that great blackness of the end ever before the mind. This
    only a mother can know, since the horror of utter darkness, and vain
    clinging to life, even when it has ceased to have any hope or joy in it,
    is the penalty she must pay for her higher state."

    I could not understand all her words, and only murmured in reply: "You
    are young to speak of death."

    "Yes, young; that is why it is so bitter to think of. In old age the
    feelings are not so keen." Then suddenly she put out her hands towards
    me, and, when I offered mine, caught my fingers with a nervous grasp and
    drew herself to a sitting position. "Ah, why must I be afflicted with a
    misery others have not known!" she exclaimed excitedly. "To be lifted
    above the others, when so young; to have one child only; then after so
    brief a period of happiness, to be smitten with barrenness, and this
    lingering malady ever gnawing like a canker at the roots of life! Who
    has suffered like me in the house? You only, Isarte, among the dead. I
    will go to you, for my grief is more than I can bear; and it may be that
    I shall find comfort even in speaking to the dead, and to a stone. Can
    you bear me in your arms?" she said, clasping me round the neck. "Take
    me up in your arms and carry me to Isarte."

    I knew what she meant, having so recently heard the story of Isarte, and
    in obedience to her command I raised her from the couch. She was tall,
    and heavier than I had expected, though so greatly emaciated; but the
    thought that she was Yoletta's mother, and the mother of the house,
    nerved me to my task, and cautiously moving step by step through the
    gloom, I carried her safely to that white-haired, moonlit woman of stone
    in the long gallery. When I had ascended the steps and brought her
    sufficiently near, she put her arms about the statue, and pressed its
    stony lips with hers.

    "Isarte, Isarte, how cold your lips are!" she murmured, in low,
    desponding tones. "Now, when I look into these eyes, which are yours,
    and yet not yours, and kiss these stony lips, how sorely does the hunger
    in my heart tempt me to sin! But suffering has not darkened my reason; I
    know it is an offense to ask anything of Him who gives us life and all
    good things freely, and has no pleasure in seeing us miserable. This
    thought restrains me; else I would cry to Him to turn this stone to
    flesh, and for one brief hour to bring back to it the vanished spirit of
    Isarte. For there is no one living that can understand my pain; but you
    would understand it, and put my tired head against your breast, and
    cover me with your grief-whitened hair as with a mantle. For your pain
    was like mine, and exceeded mine, and no soul could measure it,
    therefore in the hunger of your heart you looked far off into the
    future, where some one would perhaps have a like affliction, and suffer
    without hope, as you suffered, and measure your pain, and love your
    memory, and feel united with you, even over the gulf of long centuries
    of time. You would speak to me of it all, and tell me that the greatest
    grief was to go away into darkness, leaving no one with your blood and
    your spirit to inherit the house. This also is my grief, Isarte, for I
    am barren and eaten up by death, and must soon go away to be where you
    are. When I am gone, the father of the house will take no other one to
    his bosom, for he is old, and his life is nearly complete; and in a
    little while he will follow me, but with no pain and anguish like mine
    to cloud his serene spirit. And who will then inherit our place? Ah, my
    sister, how bitter to think of it! for then a stranger will be the
    mother of the house, and my one only child will sit at her feet, calling
    her mother, serving her with her hands, and loving and worshiping her
    with her heart!"

    The excitement had now burned itself out: she had dropped her head
    wearily on my shoulder, and bade me take her back. When I had safely
    deposited her on the couch again, she remained for some minutes with her
    face covered, silently weeping.

    The scene in the gallery had deeply affected me; now, however, while I
    sat by her, pondering over it, my mind reverted to that vanished world
    of sorrow and different social conditions in which I had lived, and
    where the lot of so many poor suffering souls seemed to me so much more
    desolate than that of this unhappy lady, who had, I imagined, much to
    console her. It even seemed to me that the grief I had witnessed was
    somewhat morbid and overstrained; and, thinking that it would perhaps
    divert her mind from brooding too much over her own troubles, I
    ventured, when she had grown calm again, to tell her some of my
    memories. I asked her to imagine a state of the world and the human
    family, in which all women were, in one sense, on an equality--all
    possessing the same capacity for suffering; and where all were, or would
    be, wives and mothers, and without any such mysterious remedy against
    lingering pain as she had spoken of. But I had not proceeded far with my
    picture before she interrupted me.

    "Do not say more," she said, with an accent of displeasure. "This, I
    suppose, is another of those grotesque fancies you sometimes give
    expression to, about which I heard a great deal when you first came to
    us. That all people should be equal, and all women wives and mothers
    seems to me a very disordered and a very repulsive idea The one
    consolation in my pain, the one glory of my life could not exist in such
    a state as that, and my condition would be pitiable indeed. All others
    would be equally miserable. The human race would multiply, until the
    fruits of the soil would be insufficient for its support; and earth
    would be filled with degenerate beings, starved in body and debased in
    mind--all clinging to an existence utterly without joy. Life is dark to
    me, but not to others: these are matters beyond you, and it is
    presumptuous in one of your condition to attempt to comfort me with idle
    fancies."

    After some moments of silence, she resumed: "The father has said to-day
    that you came to us from an island where even the customs of the people
    are different from ours; and perhaps one of their unhappy methods is to
    seek to medicine a real misery by imagining some impossible and
    immeasurably greater one. In no other way can I account for your strange
    words to me; for I cannot believe that any race exists so debased as
    actually to practice the things you speak of. Remember that I do not ask
    or desire to be informed. We have a different way; for although it is
    conceivable that present misery might be mitigated, or forgotten for a
    season, by giving up the soul to delusions, even by summoning before the
    mind repulsive and horrible images, that would be to put to an unlawful
    use, and to pervert, the brightest faculties our Father has given us:
    therefore we seek no other support in all sufferings and calamities but
    that of reason only. If you wish for my affection, you will not speak of
    such things again, but will endeavor to purify yourself from a mental
    vice, which may sometimes, in periods of suffering, give you a false
    comfort for a brief season, only to degrade you, and sink you later in a
    deeper misery. You must now leave me."

    This unexpected and sharp rebuke did not anger me, but it made me very
    sad; for I now perceived plainly enough that no great advantage would
    come to me from Chastel's acquaintance, since it was necessary to be so
    very circumspect with her. Deeply troubled, and in a somewhat confused
    state of mind, I rose to depart. Then she placed her thin, feverish
    white hand on mine. "You need not go away again," she said, "to indulge
    in bitter feelings by yourself because I have said this to you. You may
    come with the others to see me and talk to me whenever I am able to sit
    here and bear it. I shall not remember your offense, but shall be glad
    to know that there is another soul in the house to love and honor me."

    With such comfort as these words afforded I returned to the music-room,
    and, finding it empty, went out to the terrace, where the others were
    now strolling about in knots and couples, conversing and enjoying the
    lovely moonlight. Wandering a little distance away by myself, I sat down
    on a bench under a tree, and presently Yoletta came to me there, and
    closely scrutinized my face.

    "Have you nothing to tell me?" she asked. "Are you happier now?"

    "Yes, dearest, for I have been spoke to very kindly; and I should have
    been happier if only--" But I checked myself in time, and said no more
    to her about my conversation with the mother. To myself I said: "Oh,
    that island, that island! Why can't I forget its miserable customs, or,
    at any rate, stick to my own resolution to hold my tongue about them?"
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