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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 346

CHAPTER III.

WHEN she had outrun her strength, for the moment, and was forced to slacken her speed, she paused to take breath on the edge of the wooded lands. She looked neither to right nor left; on her backward flight the waters had no song, the marble forms no charm, the wonder‐flowers no page: 347 magic for her as she went; she had no ear for the melodies of the birds, no sight for the paradise of the rose‐hung ways; she had only one thought left—the gold that she had gained.

The cruelty of his words had stabbed her with each of their slow keen words as with a knife; the sickness of a mortal terror had touched her for the instant, as she had remembered that it might be her fate to be not even so much as a memory in the life which she had saved from the grave.

But with the first breath of the outer air the feebleness passed. The strength of the passion that possessed her was too pure to leave her long a prey to any thought of her own fate.

She smiled again as she looked up through the leaves at the noon‐day sun.

“What will it matter how or when the gods take my life, so only they keep their faith and give me his?” she thought.

And her step was firm and free, and her glance cloudless, and her heart content, as she went on her homeward path through the heat of the day.

She was so young, she was so ignorant, she was still so astray in the human world about her, that she thought she held a talisman in those nine gold pieces.

“A little gold,” he had said; and here she had it—honest, clean, worthy of his touch and usage.

Her heart leaped to the glad and bounding music of early youth, youth which does not reason, which only believes, and which sees the golden haze of its own faiths, and thinks them the promise of the future, as young children see the golden haze of their own hair and think it the shade of the angels’ wings above their heads.

When she at length reached the mill‐house the sun had sunk; she had been sixteen hours on foot, taking nothing all the while but a roll of rye bread that she had carried in her pouch, and a few water‐cresses that she had gathered in a little brook when the mules had paused to drink there.

Yet when she had housed the grain, and turned the tired animals into their own nook of meadow to graze and rest for the night, she entered the house neither for repose page: 348 nor food, but flew off again through the dusk of the falling night.

She had no remembrance of hunger, nor thirst, nor fatigue; she had only a buoyant sense of an ecstatic joy; she felt as though she had wings, and clove the air with no more effort than the belated starling which flew by her over the fields.

“A little god,” he had said; and in her bosom, wrapped in a green chestnut leaf, were there not the little, broad, round, glittering pieces which in the world of men seemed to have power to gain all love, all honour, all peace, and all fealty?”

“Phratos would have wished his gift to go so,” she thought to herself, with a swift, penitent, remorseful memory.

For a moment she paused and took them once more out of their hiding‐place, and undid the green leaf that enwrapped them, and kissed them and laughed, the hot tears falling down her cheeks, where she stood alone in the fields amid the honey‐smell of the clover in the grass, and the fruit‐fragrance of the orchards all about her in the dimness.

“A little gold!—a little gold!” she murmured, and she laughed aloud in her great joy, and blessed the gods that they had given her to hear the voice of his desire.

“A little gold,” he had said, only; and here she had so much!

No sorcerer, she thought, ever had power wider than this wealth bestowed on her. She did not know; she had no measurement. Flamma’s eyes she had seen glisten over a tithe of such a sum as over the riches of an emperor’s treasury.

She slipped them in her breast again and ran on past the reeds silvering in the rising moon, past the waters quiet on a windless air, past the dark Christ who would not look,—who had never looked, or she had loved him with her earliest love, even as for his pity she loved Thanatos.

Breathless and noiseless she severed the reeds with her swift feet, and lightly as a swallow on the wing passed through the dreary portals into Arslàn’s chamber.

His lamp was lighted.

He stood before the cartoon of the Barabbas, touching it page: 349 here and there with his charcoal, adding those latest thoughts, those after‐graces, with which the artist delights to caress his picture, with a hand as soft and as lingering as the hand with which a mother caresses the yellow sunshine of her first‐born’s curls.

His face as he stood was very pale, passionless, weary, with a sadness sardonic and full of scorn for himself on his mouth, and in his eyes those dreams which went so far—so far—into worlds whose glories his hand could pourtray for no human sight.

He was thinking, as he worked, of the Barabbas.

“You must rot,” he thought. “You will feed the rat and the mouse; the squirrel will come and gnaw you to line his nest; and the beetle and the fly will take you for a spawning‐bed. You will serve no other end—since you are mine. And yet I am so great a fool that I love you, and try to bring you closer and closer to the thing I see, and which you are not, and never can be. For what man lives so happy as to see the Canaan of his ideals,—save as Moses saw it from afar off, only to raise his arms to it vainly, and die?”

There came a soft shiver of the air, as though it were severed by some eager bird.

She came and stood beside him, a flash like the sunrise on her face, a radiance in her eyes more lustrous than any smile; her body tremulous and breathless from the impatient speed with which her footsteps had been winged; about her all the dew and fragrance of the night.

“Here is the gold!” she cried.

Her voice was eager and broken with its too great haste.

“Gold?”

He turned and looked at her, ignorant of her meaning, astonished at her sudden presence there.

“Here is the gold!” she murmured, her voice rising swift and clear, and full of the music of triumph with which her heart was thrilling. “‘A little gold,’ you said, you remember?—‘only a little.’ And this is much. Take it—take it! Do you not hear?”

“Gold?” he echoed again, shaken from his trance of thought, and comprehending nothing and remembering nothing of the words that he had spoken in his solitude.

“Yes! It is mine,” she said, her voice broken in its page: 350 tumult of ecstasy—“it is mine—all mine. It is no charity, no gift to me. The chain was worth it, and I would only take what it was worth. A little gold, you said; and now you can make the Barabbas live for ever upon canvas, and compel men to say that it is great.”

As the impetuous, tremulous words broke from her, she drew the green leaf with the coins in it from her bosom, and thrust it in to his hand, eager, exultant, laughing, weeping, all the silence and the control of her nature swept away in the flood of this immeasurable joy possessing her.

The touch of the glittering pieces against his hands stung him to comprehension; his face flushed over all its pallor; he thrust it away with a gesture of abhorrence and rejection.

“Money!” he muttered. “What money?—yours?”

“Yes, mine entirely; mine indeed!” she answered, with a sweet, glad ring of victory in her rejoicing voice. “It is true, quite true. They were the chains of sequins that Phratos gave me when I used to dance to his music in the mountains; and I have sold them. ‘A little gold,’ you said; ‘and the Barabbas can live for ever.’ Why do you look so? It is all mine; all yours—”

In the last words her voice lost all its proud exultation, and sank low, with a dull startled wonder in it.

Why did he look so?

His gesture of refusal she had not noticed. But the language his glance spoke was one plain to her. It terrified her, amazed her, struck her chill and dumb.

In it there was disgust, anger, loathing, even horror;—and yet there was in it also an unwonted softness, which in a woman’s eyes would have shown itself by a rush of sudden tears.

“What do you think that I have done?” she murmured under her breath. “The gold is mine—mine honestly. I have not stolen it, nor begged it. I got it as I say. Why will you not take it? Why do you look at me so?”

“I? Your money? God in heaven! what can you think me?”

She grew white to the lips, all the impetuous, radiant tumult of her innocent rapture frozen into terror.

“I have done nothing wrong,” she murmured with a piteous wistfulness and wonder—“nothing wrong, indeed; page: 351 there is no shame in it. Will you not take it—for their sake?”

He turned on her with a severity almost savage.

“It is impossible! Good God! Was I not low enough already? How dared you think a thing so vile of me? Have I ever asked pity of any living soul?”

His voice was choked in his throat; he was wounded to the heart.

He had no thought that he was cruel; he had no intent to terrify or hurt her; but the sting of this last and lowest humiliation was so horrible to all the pride of his manhood, and so bitterly reminded him of his own abject poverty; and with all this there was an emotion in him that he had difficulty to control—being touched by her ignorance and by her gift as few things in his life had ever touched him.

She stood before him trembling, wondering, sorely afraid; all the light had died out of her face; she was very pale, and her eyes dilated strangely.

For some moments there was silence between them.

“You will not take it?” she said at last, in a hushed, fearful voice, like that of one who speaks in the sight of some dead thing which makes all quiet around it.

“Take it!” he echoed. “I could sooner kill a man out yonder and rob him. Can you not understand? Greater shame could never come to me. You do not know what you would do. There may be beasts that fall as low, no doubt, but they are curs too base for hanging. Have I frightened you? I did not mean to frighten you. You mean well and nobly, no doubt—no doubt. You do not know what you would do. Gifts of gold from man to man are bitter, and sap the strength of the receiver; but from woman to man they are—to the man shameful. Can you not understand?”

Her face burned duskily; she moved with a troubled confused effort to get away from his gaze.

“No,” she said in her shut teeth. “I do not know what you mean. Flamma takes all the gold I make. Why not you, if it be gold that is honest?”

“Flamma is your grandsire—your keeper—your master. He has a right to do as he chooses. He gives you food and shelter, and in return he takes the gains of your labour. But I,—what have I ever given you? I am a stranger to page: 352 you, and should have no claim on you, if I could be base enough to seek one. I am hideously poor. I make no disguise with you,—you know too well how I live. But can you not see?—if I were mean enough to take the worth of a crust from you, I should be no more worthy of the very name of man. It is for the man to give to the woman. You see.”

She heard him in silence, her face still dark with the confused pain on it of one who has fallen or been struck upon the head, and half forgets and half remembers.

“I do not see,” she muttered. “Whoever has, gives; what does it matter? The folly in me was its littleness: it could not be of use. But it was all I had.”

“Little or great,—the riches of empires, or a beggar’s dole,—there could be no difference in the infamy to me. Have I seemed to you a creature so vile or weak that you could have a title to put such shame upon me?”

Out of the bitter passion of his soul, words more cruel than he had consciousness of rose to his lips and leaped to speech, and stung her as scorpions sting.

She said nothing; her teeth clenched, her face changed as it had used to do when Flamma had beaten her.

She said nothing, but turned away; and with one twist of her hand she flung the pieces through the open casement into the river that flowed below.

They sank with a little shiver of the severed water.

He caught her wrist a second too late.

“What madness? What have you done? You throw your gold away to the river‐swamp for me, when I have not a shred worth a copper‐piece to pay you back in their stead! I did not mean to hurt you; it was only the truth,—you could not have shamed me more. You bring on me an indignity that I can neither requite nor revenge. You have no right to load me with debts that I cannot pay—with gifts that I would die sooner than receive. But, then, how should you know?—how should you know? If I wounded you with sharp words, I did wrong.”

There was a softness that was almost tenderness in his voice as he spoke the last phrases in his self‐reproach; but her face did not change, her eyes did not lose their startled horror; she put her hand to her throat as though she choked.

page: 353

“You cannot do wrong—to me,” she muttered, true, even in such a moment, to the absolute adoration which possessed her.

Then, ere he could stay her, she turned, without another word, and fled out from his presence into the dusk of the night.

The rushes in the moonlight sighed where they grew by the water‐side above the sands where the gold had sunk.

A thing more precious than gold was dead; and only the reeds mourned for it. A thing of the river as they were, born like them from the dust, from the flood, from the wind and the foam; a thing that a god might desire, a thing that a breeze might break.

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