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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 318


ONE evening, a little later, he met her in the fields on the same spot where Marcellin first had seen her as a child amongst the scarlet blaze of the poppies.

The lands were all yellow with saffron and emerald with the young corn; she balanced on her head a great brass jar; the red girdle glowed about her waist as she moved: the wind stirred the folds of her garments; her feet were buried in the shining grass; clouds tawny and purple were behind her; she looked like some Moorish phantom seen in a dream under a sky of Spain.

He paused and gazed at her with eyes half content, half cold.

She was of a beauty so uncommon, so strange, and all that was his for his art:—a great artist, whether in words, in melody, or in colour, is always cruel, or at the least seems so, for all things that live under the sun are to him created only to minister to his one inexorable passion.

Art is so vast, and human life is so little. It is to him only supremely just that the insect of an hour should be sacrificed to the infinite and eternal truth which must endure until the heavens themselves shall wither as a scroll page: 319 that is held in a flame. It might have seemed to Arslàn base to turn her ignorance, and submission to his will, for the gratification of his amorous passions; but to make these serve the art to which he had himself abandoned every earthly good was in his sight justified, as the death‐agonies of the youth whom they decked with roses and slew in sacrifice to the sun, were in the sight of the Mexican nation.

The youth whom the Mexicans slew, on the high hill of the city, with his face to the west was always the choicest and the noblest of all the opening flower of their manhood: for it was his fate to be called to enter into the realms of eternal light, and to dwell face to face with the unbearable brightness without whose rays the universe would have perished frozen in perpetual night. So the artist, who is true to his art, regards every human sacrifice that he renders up to it; how can he feel pity for a thing which perishes to feed a flame that he deems the life of the world?

The steel that he draws out from the severed heart of his victim he is ready to plunge into his own vitals; no other religion can vaunt as much of its priests.

“What are you thinking of to‐night?” he asked her where she came through the fields by the course of a little flower‐sown brook, fringed with tall bulrushes and waving willow‐stems.

She lifted her eyelids with a dreamy and wistful regard.

“I was thinking,—I wonder what the reed felt that you told me of,—the one reed that a god chose from all its millions by the waterside and cut down to make into a flute.”

“Ah?—you see there are no reeds that make music now‐a‐days; the reeds are only good to be woven into kreels for the fruits and the fish of the market.”

“That is not the fault of the reeds?”

“Not that I know; it is the fault of men most likely who find the chink of coin in barter sweeter music than the song of the syrinx. But what do you think the reed felt then?—pain to be so sharply severed from its fellows?”

“No—or the god would not have chosen it.”

“What then?”

A troubled sigh parted her lips; these old fables were fairest truths to her, and gave a grace to every humblest page: 320 thing that the sun shone on, or the waters begat from their foam, or the winds blew with their breath into the little life of a day.

“I was trying to think. But I cannot be sure. These reeds have forgotten. They have lost their soul. They want nothing but to feed among the sand and the mud, and grow in millions together, and shelter the toads and the newts,—there is not a note of music in them all—except when the wind rises and makes them sigh, and then they remember that long, long ago, the breath of a great god was in them.”

Arslàn looked at her where she stood; her eyes resting on the reeds, and the brook at her feet; the crimson heat of the evening all about her, on the brazen amphora, on the red girdle on her loins, on the thoughtful parted lips, on the proud bent brows above which a golden butterfly floated as above the brows of Psyche.

He smiled; the smile that was so cold to her.

“Look: away over the fields, there comes a peasant with a sickle; he comes to mow down the reeds to make a bed for his cattle. If he heard you, he would think you mad.”

“They have thought me many things worse. What matter?’

“Nothing at all;—that I know. But you seem to envy that reed—so long ago—that was chosen?”

“Who would not?”

“Are you so sure? The life of the reed was always pleasant;—dancing there in the light, playing with the shadows, blowing in the winds; with the cool waters all about it all day long, and the yellow daffodils and the blue bell flowers for its brethren.”

“Nay:—how do you know?”

Her voice was low, and thrilled with a curious eager pain.

“How do you know?” she murmured. “Rather,—it was born in the sands, amongst the stones, of the chance winds, of the stray germs,—no one asking, no one heeding, brought by a sunbeam, spat out by a toad—no one caring where it dropped. Rather,—it grew there by the river, and such millions of reeds grew with it, that neither waters nor winds could care for a thing so common and worthless, but page: 321 the very snakes twisting in and out despised it, and thrust the arrows of their tongues through it in scorn. And then—I think I see!—the great god walked by the edge of the river, and he mused on a gift to give man, on a joy that should be a joy on the earth for ever; and he passed by the lily white as snow, by the thyme that fed the bees, by the gold heart in the arum flower, by the orange flame of the tall sand‐rush, by all the great water‐blossoms which the sun kissed, and the swallows loved, and he came to the one little reed pierced with the snakes’ tongues, and all alone amidst millions. Then he took it up, and cut it to the root, and killed it;—killed it as a reed—but breathed into it a song audible and beautiful to all the ears of men. Was that death to the reed?—or life? Would a thousand summers of life by the waterside have been worth that one thrill of song when a god first spoke through it?”

Her face lightened with a radiance to which the passion of her words was pale and poor; the vibrations of her voice grew sonorous and changing as the sounds of music itself; her eyes beamed through unshed tears as planets through the rain.

She spoke of the reed and the god:—she thought of herself and of him.

He was silent.

The reaper came nearer to them through the rosy haze of the evening, and cast a malignant eye upon them, and bent his back and drew the curve of his hook through the rushes.

Arslàn watched the sweep of the steel.

“The reeds only fall now for the market.” He said, with a smile that was cruel. “And the gods are all dead—Folle‐Farine.”

She did not understand; but her face lost its colour, her heart sunk, her lips closed. She went on, treading down the long coils of the wild strawberries and the heavy grasses wet with the dew.

The glow from the west died, a young moon rose, the fields and the skies grew dark.

He looked, and let her go;—alone.

In this stray offspring of a cruel chance, Hermes, pitiful for once, had given him a reed through which all sweetest and noblest music might have been breathed.

page: 322

But Hermes, when he gives such a gift, leaves the mortal on whom he bestows it to make or to miss the music as he may; and to Arslàn, his reed was but a reed as the rest were—a thing that bloomed for a summer‐eve—a thing of the stagnant water and drifting sand—a thing that lived by the breath of the wind—a thing that a man should cut down and weave in a crown for a day, and then cast aside on the stream, and neither regret nor in anywise remember—a reed of the river, as the rest were.