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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 323

CHAPTER I.

“ONLY a little gold!” he thought, one day, looking on the Barabbas cartoon. “As much as I have flung away on a dancing‐woman, or the dancing‐woman on the jewel for her breast. Only a little gold, and I should be free; and with me these.”

The thought escaped him unawares in broken words, one day, when he thought himself alone.

This was a perpetual torture to him, this captivity and penury, this aimlessness and fruitlessness, in which his years were drifting, spent in the dull bodily labour that any brainless human brute could execute as well as he, consuming his days in physical fatigue in order that a roof he despised might cover him, and a bread which was bitter as gall to him might be his to eat; knowing all the while that the real strength which he possessed, the real power that could give him an empire amidst his fellows, was dying away in him as slowly but as surely as though his brain were feasting fishes in the river mud below.

So little!—just a few handfuls of that wealth that cheats and wantons, fools and panders, gathered and scattered so easily in that world with which he had now no more to do than if he were lying in his grave,—and having this little, he would be able to compel the gaze of the world, and arouse the homage of its flinching fear, even if it should still continue to deny him other victories.

It was not the physical privations of poverty which could daunt him.

His boyhood had been spent in a health‐giving and simple training, amidst a strong and hardy mountain‐ page: 324 people. It was nothing to him to make his bed on straw; to bear hunger unblenchingly; to endure cold and heat, and all the freaks and changes of wild weather.

In the long nights of a northern winter he had fasted for weeks on a salted fish and a handful of meal; on the polar seas he had passed a winter ice‐blocked, with famine kept at bay only by the flesh of the seal, and men dying around him raving in the madness of thirst.

None of the physical ills of poverty could appal him; but its imprisonment, its helplessness, the sense of utter weakness, the impotence to rise and go to other lands and other lives, the perpetual narrowness and darkness in which it compelled him to abide, all these were horrible to him; he loathed them as a man loathes the irons on his wrists, and the stone vault of his prison‐cell.

“If I had only money!” he muttered, looking on his Barabbas, “ever so little—ever so little!”

For he knew that if he had as much gold as he had thrown away in earlier times to the Syrian beggar who had sat to him on his house‐top at Damascus, he could go to a city and make the work live in colour, and try once more to force from men that wonder and that fear which are the highest tributes that the multitude can give to the genius which arises amidst it.

There was no creature in the chamber with him, except the spiders that wove in the darkness among the timbers.

It was only just then dawn.

The birds were singing in the thickets of the water’s edge; a blue kingfisher skimmed the air above the rushes, and a dragon‐fly hunted insects over the surface of the reeds by the shore; the swallows, that built in the stones of the tower, were wheeling to and fro, glad and eager for the sun.

Otherwise it was intensely silent.

In the breadth of shadow still cast across the stream by the walls of the tower, the market‐boat of Yprès Yprés glided by, and the soft splash of the passing oars was a sound too familiar to arouse him.

But, unseen, Folle‐Farine, resting one moment in her transit to look up at that grim grey pile in which her paradise was shut, watching and listening with the fine‐strung senses of a great love, heard through the open page: 325 casement the muttered words which, out of the bitterness of his heart, escaped his lips unconsciously.

She heard and understood.

Although a paradise to her, to him it was only a prison.

“It is with him as with the great black eagle that they keep in the bridge‐tower, in a hole in the dark, with wings cut close and a stone tied to each foot,” she thought, as she went on her way noiselessly down with the ebb tide on the river. And she sorrowed exceedingly for his sake.

She knew nothing of all that he remembered in the years of his past—of all that he had lost, whilst yet young, as men should only lose their joys in the years of their old age; she knew nothing of the cities and the habits of the world—nothing of the world’s pleasures and the world’s triumphs.

To her it had always seemed strange that he wanted any other life than this which he possessed.

To her, the freedom, the strength, the simplicity of it, seemed noble, and all that the heart of a man could desire from fate.

Going forth at sunrise to his daily labour on the broad golden sheet of the waters, down to the sight and the sound and the smell of the sea, and returning at sunset to wander at will through the woods and the pastures in the soft evening shadows; free to watch and pourtray with the turn of his wrist the curl of each flower, the wonder of every cloud, the smile in any woman’s eyes, the gleam of any moonbeam through the leaves; or to lie still on the grass, or the sand by the shore, and see the armies of the mists sweep by over his head, and hearken to the throb of the nightingale’s voice through the darkness, and gather the coolness of the dews in the hollow of his hand, and let the night go by in dreams of worlds beyond the stars;—such a life as this seemed to her beyond any other beautiful.

A life in the air, on the tide, in the light, in the wind, in the sound of salt waves, in the smell of wild thyme, with no roof to come between him and the sky, with no need to cramp body and mind in the cage of a street—a life spent in the dreaming of dreams, and full of vision and thought as the summer was full of its blossoms and fruits,—it seemed to her the life that must needs be best for a man, since the life that was freest, simplest, and highest.

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She knew nothing of the lust of ambition, of the desire of fame, of the ceaseless unrest of the mind which craves the world’s honour, and is doomed to the world’s neglect; of the continual fire which burns in the hands which stretch themselves in conscious strength to seize a sceptre, and remain empty, only struck in the palm by the buffets of fools.

Of these she knew nothing.

She had no conception of them—of the weakness and the force that twine one in another in such a temper as his. She was at once above them and beneath them. She could not comprehend that he who could so bitterly disdain the flesh‐pots and the wine‐skins of the common crowd, yet could stoop to care for that crowd’s Hosannas.

But yet this definite longing which she overheard in the words that escaped him she could not mistake; it was a longing plain to her, one that moved all the dullest and most brutal souls around her.

All her years through she had seen the greed of gold, or the want of it, the twin rulers of the only little dominion that she knew. Money, in her estimate of it, meant only some little sum of copper pieces, such as could buy a hank of flax, a load of sweet chestnuts, a stack of wood, a swarm of bees, a sack of autumn fruits.

What in cities would have been penury, was deemed illimitable riches in the homesteads and cabins which had been her only world.

“A little gold!—a little gold!” she pondered ceaselessly, as she went on down the current.

She knew that he only craved it, not to purchase any pleasure for his appetites or for his vanities, but only as the lever whereby he would be enabled to lift off from him that iron weight of adverse circumstances which held him down darkness as the stones held the caged eagle.

“A little gold!” she said to herself again and again as the boat drifted on to the town, with the scent of the mulberries, and the herbs, and the basket of roses, which were its cargo for the market, fragrant on the air.

“A little gold!”

It seemed so slight a thing, and the more cruel because so slight, to stand thus between him and that noonday splendour of fame which he sought to win, in his obscurity page: 327 and indigence, as the blinded eagle in his den still turned his aching eyes by instinct to the sun.

Her heart was weary for him as she went.

“What use for the gods to have given him back life,” she thought, “if they must give him thus with it the incurable fever of an endless desire?”

It was a gift as poisoned, a granted prayer as vain, as the immortality which they had given to Tithonus.

“A little money,” he had said: it seemed a thing almost within her grasp.

Had she been willing to steal from Flamma, she could have taken it as soon as the worth of the load which she carried should have been paid to her; but by a theft she would not serve Arslàn now. No gifts would she give him but what should be pure and worthy of his touch.

She pondered and pondered, cleaving the waters with regular measures, and gliding under the old stone arches of the bridge into the town.

When she brought the boat back up the stream at noonday, her face had cleared; her mouth smiled; she rowed on swiftly, with a light sweet and glad in her eyes.

A thought had come to her.

In the market‐place that day she had heard two women talk together, under the shade of their great red umbrellas, over their heaps of garden produce.

“So thou hast bought the brindled calf after all. Thou art in luck.”

“Aye, in luck indeed, for the boy to rout up the old pear‐tree and find those queer coins beneath it. The tree had stood there all my father’s and grandfather’s time, and longer too, for aught I know, and now one ever dreamed there was any treasure at the root; but he took a fancy to dig up the tree; he said it looked like a ghost, with its old grey arms, and he wanted to plant a young cherry.”

“There must have been a mass of coin?

“No,—only a few little shabby, bent pieces. But the lad took them up to the Prince Sartorian, and he is always crazed about the like; and he sent us for them quite a roll of gold, and said that the coins found were, beyond a doubt, of the Julain time—whatever he might mean by that.”

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“Sartorian will buy any rubbish of that sort. For my part, I think if one buried a brass button only long enough, he would give one a bank‐note for it.”

“They say there are marble creatures of his that cost more than would dower a thousand brides, or pension a thousand soldiers. I do not know about that. My boy did not get far in the palace; but he said that the hall he waited in was graven with gold and precious stones. One picture he saw in it was placed on a golden altar, as if it were a god. To worship old coins, and rags of canvas, and idols of stone like that,—how vile it is! while we are glad to get a nettle‐salad off the edge of the road.”

“But the coins gave thee the brindled calf.”

“That was no goodness to us. Sartorian has a craze for such follies.”

Folle‐Farine had listened, and, standing by them, for once spoke.

“Who is Sartorian? Will you tell me?”

The women were from a far‐distant village, and had not the infinite horror of her felt by those who lived in the near neighbourhood of the mill at Yprès Yprés .

“He is a great noble,” they answered her, eyeing her with suspicion.

“And where is his dwelling?”

“Near Rioz. What do the like of you want with the like of the Prince?”

She gave them thanks for their answers, and turned away in silence with a glow at her heart.

“What is that wicked one thinking of now, that she asks for such as the Prince Sartorian?” said the women, crossing themselves, repentant that they had so far forgotten themselves as to hold any syllable of converse with the devil’s daughter.

An old man plucking birds near at hand chuckled low in his throat:—

“Maybe she knows that Sartorian will give yet more gold for new faces than for old coins; and—how handsome she is, the black‐browed witch!”

She had passed away through the crowds of the market, and did not hear.

“I go to Rioz myself in two days’ time with the mules,” she thought; and her heart rose, her glance lightened, she page: 329 moved through the people with a step so elastic, and a face so radiant from the flush of a new hope, that they fell away from her with an emotion which for once was not wholly hatred.

That night, when the mill‐house was quiet, and the moonbeams fell through all its small dim windows and chequered all its wooden floors, she rose from the loft where she slept, and stole noiselessly down the steep stairway to the chamber where the servant Pitchou slept.

It was a little dark chamber, with jutting beams and a casement that was never unclosed. On a nail hung the blue woolen skirt and the linen cap of the woman’s working dress. In a corner was a little image of a saint and a string of leaden beads.

On a flock pallet the old wrinkled creature slept, tired out with the labour of a long day amongst the cabbage‐beds and rows of lettuces, muttering as she slept of the little daily peculations that were the sweet sins of her life and of her master’s.

She cared for her soul—cared very much, and tried to save it; but cheating was dear to her, and cruelty was natural: she tricked the fatherless child in his measure of milk for the tenth of a sou, and wrung the throat of the bullfinch as it sang, lest he should peck the tenth of a cherry.

Folle‐Farine went close to the straw bed and laid her hand on the sleeper.

“Wake! I want a word with you.”

Pichou started, struggled, glared with wide‐open blinded eyes, and gasped in horrible fear.

Folle‐Farine put the other hand on her mouth.

“Listen! The night I was brought here you stole the sequins off my head. Give them back to me now, or I will kill you where you lie.”

The grip of her left hand on the woman’s throat, and the gleam of her knife in the right, were enough, as she had counted they would be.

Old Pitchou struggled, lied, stammered, writhed, strove to scream, and swore her innocence of this theft which had waited eleven years to rise against her to Mary and her angels; but in the end she surrendered, and tottered on her shuddering limbs, and crept beneath her bed, and with page: 330 terror and misery brought forth from her secret hole in the rafters of the floor the little chain of shaking sequins.

It had been of no use to her: she had always thought it of inestimable value, and could never bring herself to part from it, visiting it night and day, and being perpetually tormented with the dread lest her master should discover and claim it.

Folle‐Farine seized it from her silently, and laughed—a quiet cold laugh—at the threats and imprecations of the woman who had robbed her in her infancy.

“How can you complain of me, without telling also of your own old sin?” she said, with contempt, as she quitted the chamber. “Shriek away as you choose: the chain is mine, not yours. I was weak when you stole it; I am strong enough now. You had best not meddle, or you will have the worst of the reckoning.”

And she shut the door on the old woman’s screams and left her, knowing well that Pitchou would not dare to summon her master.

It was just daybreak. All the world was still dark.

She slipped the sequins in her bosom, and went back to her own bed of hay in the loft.

There was no sound in the darkness but the faint piping of song birds that felt the coming of day long ere the grosser senses of humanity could have seen a glimmer of light on the black edge of the eastern clouds.

She sat on her couch with the sequins in her hand, and gazed upon them. They were very precious to her. She had never forgotten or ceased to desire them, though to possess herself of them by force had never occurred to her until that night. Their theft had been a wrong which she had never pardoned, yet she had never avenged it until now.

As she held them in her hand for the first time in eleven years, a strong emotion came over her.

The time when she had worn them came out suddenly in sharp relief from the haze of her imperfect memories. All the old forest‐life for a moment revived for her.

The mists of the mountains, the smell of the chestnut‐woods, the curl of the white smoke amongst the leaves, the sweet wild strains of the music, the mad grace of the old Moorish dances, the tramp through the hill passes, the leap page: 331 and splash of the tumbling waters,—all arose to her for one moment from the oblivion in which years of toil and exile had buried them.

The tears started to her eyes; she kissed the little glittering coins, she thought of Phratos.

She had never known his fate.

The gipsy who had been found dead in the fields had been forgotten by the people before the same snows which had covered his body had melted at the first glimmer of the wintry sun.

Flamma could have told her; but he had never spoken one word in all her life to her, except in curt reprimand or in cruel irony. All the old memories had died out; and no wanderers of her father’s race had ever come into the peaceful and pastoral district of the northern seaboard, where they could have gained no footing, and could have made no plunder.

The sight of the little band of coins, which had danced so often amongst her curls under the moonlit leaves in the Liébana to the leaping and tuneful measures of the viol, moved her to a wistful longing for the smile and the voice of Phratos.

“I would never part with them for myself,” she thought; “I would die of hunger first—were it only myself.”

And still she was resolved to part with them; to sell her single little treasure—the sole gift of the only creature that had ever loved her, even in the very first hour that she had recovered it.

The sequins were worth no more than any baby’s woven crown of faded daisies; but to her, as to the old peasant, they seemed, by their golden glitter, a source of wealth incalculable.

At twilight that day, as she stood by Arslàn, she spoke to him, timidly.

“I go to Rioz with the two mules, at daybreak to‐morrow, with flour for Flamma. It is a town, larger than the one yonder. Is there anything I might do there—for you?”

“Do? What should you do?” he answered her, with inattention and almost impatience; for his heart was sore with the terrible weariness of inaction.

She looked at him very wistfully, and her mouth parted a page: 332 little as though to speak; but his repulse chilled the words that rose to her lips.

She dared not say her thoughts to him, lest she should displease him.

“If it come to nought he had best not know, perhaps,” she said to herself.

So she kept silence.

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