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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 353

CHAPTER IV.

THE day broke tranquilly. There was a rosy light over all the earth. In the cornlands a few belated sheaves stood alone in the reaping‐ground, while children sought stray ears that might still be left amongst the wild flowers and the stubble. The smell of millions of ripening autumn fruits filled the air from the orchards. The women going to their labour in their fields, gave each other a quiet good day; whilst their infants pulled down the blackberry branches in the lanes or bowled the early apples down the roads. Great clusters of black grapes were already mellowed on the vines that clambered over cabin roof and farmhouse chimney. The chimes of the earliest bells sounded softly from many a little steeple bosomed in the rolling woods.

An old man going to his work passed by a girl lying asleep in a hollow of the ground, beneath a great tree of berries. She was lying with her face turned upward; her arms above her head; her eyelids were wet; her mouth smiled a dreamy tenderness; her lips murmured a little inaudibly; her bosom heaved with fast uneven palpitating breaths.

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It was sunrise.

In the elder thicket little chaffinches were singing, and a missel‐thrush gave late in the year a song of the April weather. The east was radiant with the promise of a fair day, in which summer and autumn should be wedded with gorgeous pomp of colour, and joyous chorus of the birds. The old man roughly thrust against her breast the heavy wooden shoe on his right foot.

“Get up!” he muttered, “Is it for the like of you to lie and sleep at day‐dawn? Get up, or your breath will poison the grasses that the cattle feed on, and they will die of an elf‐shot, surely.”

She raised her head from where it rested on her out‐stretched arms, and looked him in the eyes and smiled unconsciously; then glanced around and rose and dragged her steps away, in the passive mechanical obedience begotten by long slavery.

There was a shiver in her limbs; a hunted terror in her eyes; she had wandered sleepless all night long.

“Beast,” muttered the old man, trudging on with a backward glance at her. “You have been at a witches’ sabbath, I dare be bound. We shall have fine sickness in the styes and byres. I wonder would a silver bullet hurt you, as the fables say? If I were sure it would, I would not mind having my old silver flagon melted down, though it is the only thing worth a rush in the house.”

She went on through the long wet rank grass, not hearing his threats against her. She drew her steps slowly and lifelessly through the heavy dews; her hand was sunk; her lips moved audibly, and murmured as she went, “A little gold, a little gold!”

“May be some one has shot her this very day‐dawn,” thought the peasant, shouldering his axe as he went down into the little wood to cut ash‐sticks for the market. “She looks half dead already; and they say the devil‐begotten never bleed.”

The old man guessed aright. She had received her mortal wound; though it was one bloodless and tearless, and for which no moan was made, lest any should blame the slayer.

The sense of some great guilt was on her, as she stole through the rosy warmth of the early morning.

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She had thought to take him liberty, honour, strength, and dominion among his fellows—and he had told her, that she had dealt him the foulest shame that his life had ever known.

“What right have you to burden me with debt unasked?” he had cried out against her in the bitterness of his soul. And she knew that, unasked, she had laid on him the debt of life.

If ever he should know?—

She had wandered on and on, aimlessly, not knowing what she did all the night through, hearing no other sound but the fierce hard scathing scorn of his reproaches.

He had told her she was in act so criminal, and yet she knew herself in intent so blameless; she felt like those of whom she had heard in the old Hellenic stories, who had been doomed by fate, guiltless themselves, to work some direful guilt, which had to be, out to its bitter end, the innocent yet the accursed instrument of destiny, even as Adrastus upon Atys.

On and on, through the moonlight she had fled, when she had left the water‐tower that night; down the slope of the fields, through the late blossoms of the poppies, and the feathery haze of the ripened grasses tossed in waves from right to left; the long shadows of the clouds upon the earth, chasing her like the spectre hosts of the Aaskarreya of his Scandinavian skies.

She had dropped at last like a dying thing, broken and breathless on the ground.

There she crouched, and hid her face upon her hands; the scorch of an intolerable shame burned on it.

She did not know what ailed her; what consumed her with abhorrence of herself. She longed for the earth to yawn and cover her; for the lilies asleep in the pool, to unclose and take her amidst them. Every shiver of a leaf, under a night‐bird’s passage, every motion of the water, as the willow branches swept it, made her start and shiver as though some great guilt was on her soul.

Not a breath of wind was stirring, not a sound disturbed the serenity of the early night; she heard no voice but the plaintive cry of the cushat. She saw “no snakes but the keen stars,” which looked on her cold and luminous, and indifferent to human woes as the eyes of Arslàn.

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Yet she was afraid; afraid with a trembling horror of herself; she who had once never known one pulse of fear, and who had smiled in the eyes of death as children in their mother’s.

The thrill of a new‐born, inexplicable, cruel consciousness stole like fire through her. She knew now that she loved him with that strange mystery of human love which had been for ever to her until now a thing apart from her, denied to her, half scorned, half yearned for; viewed from afar with derision, yet with desire, as a thing at once beneath her and beyond her.

All the light died; the moon rose; the while lilies shared in its pallid rays; the night birds went by on the wind. She never stirred; the passionate warmth of her frame changed to a deadly cold; her face was buried in her hands; ever and again she shivered, and glanced round, as the sound of a hare’s step or the rustle of a bough by a squirrel broke the silence.

The calm night‐world around her, the silvery seas of reeds, the dusky woods, the moon in its ring of golden vapour, the flickering foilage, the gleam of the glowworm in the dew, all the familiar things amidst which her feet had wandered for twelve summers in the daily measure of those beaten tracks; all these seemed suddenly strange to her—mysterious, unreal.

She longed for the day to dawn again, though day was but an hour dead. And yet she felt that at the first break of light she must flee and hide from his and every eye.

She but meant to give him honour; and he had upbraided her gift as shame.

The bitterness, the cruelty, the passion of his reproaches, stung with their poison, as, in her vision of the reed, she had seen the barbed tongues of a thousand snakes striking through and through the frail, despised, blossomless slave of the wind.

She had thought that as the god to the reed, so might he to her say hereafter, “You are the lowliest and least of all the chance‐born things of the sands and the air, and yet through you has an immortal music arisen,”—and for the insanity of her thought he had cursed her.

Towards dawn, where she had sunk down in the moss, page: 357 and in the thickets of elder and thorn—where she had made her bed in her childhood many a summer night, when she had been turned out from the doors of the mill‐house; there for a little while a fitful exhausted sleep came to her; the intense exhaustion of bodily fatigue overcoming and drugging to slumber the fever and the wakefulness of the mind. The thrush came out of the thorn, while it was still quite dark, and the morning stars throbbed in the skies, and sang his day‐song close about her head.

In her sleep she smiled. For Oneiros was merciful; and she dreamed that she slept folded close in the arms of Arslàn, and in her dreams she felt the kisses of his lips rain fast on hers.

Then the old peasant trudging to his labour in the obscurity of the early day saw her, and struck at her with his foot and woke her roughly, and muttered, “Get thee up; is it such beggars as thee that should be a‐bed when the sun breaks?”

She opened her eyes, and smiled on him unconsciously, as she had smiled in her brief oblivion. The passion of her dreams was still about her; her mouth burned, her limbs trembled; the air seemed to her filled with music, like the sound of the mavis singing in the thorn.

Then she remembered; and shuddered; and arose, knowing the sweet, mad dream, which had cheated her, a lie. For she awoke alone.

She did not heed the old man’s words, she did not feel his hurt; yet she obeyed him, and left the place, and dragged herself feebly towards Yprès Yprés by the sheer unconscious working of that instinct born of habit which takes the ox or the ass back undriven through the old accustomed ways to stand beside their ploughshare or their harness faithful and unbidden.

Where the stream ran by the old mill‐steps the river reeds were blowing in the wind, with sun‐rays playing in their midst, and the silver wings of the swallows brushing them with a swift caress.

“I thought to be the reed chosen by the gods!” she said bitterly in her heart, “but am I not worthy—even to die.”

For she would have asked of fate no nobler thing than this—to be cut down as the reed by the reaper, if so be page: 358 that through her the world might be brought to hearken to the music of the lips that she loved.

She drew her aching weary limbs feebly through the leafy ways of the old mill‐garden. The first leaves of autumn fluttered down upon her head; the last scarlet of the roses flashed in her path as she went; the winelike odours of the fruits were all about her on the air. It was then fully day. The sun was up; the bells rang the sixth hour far away from the high towers and spires of the town.

At the mill‐house, and in the mill‐yard, where usually everyone had arisen and were hard at labour whist the dawn was dark, everything was still. There was no sign of work. The light blazed on the panes of the casements under the eaves, but its summons failed to arouse the sleepers under the roof.

The bees hummed around their houses of straw; the pigeons flew to and fro between the timbers of the walls and the boughs of the fruit trees. The mule leaned his head over the bar of the gate, and watched with wistful eyes. The cow in her shed lowed, impatient for some human hands to unbar her door, and lead her forth to her green clovered pasture. A dumb boy, who aided in the working of the mill, sat astride of a log of timber, kicking his feet amongst the long grasses, and blowing thistles down above his head upon the breeze.

The silence and the inactivity startled her into a sense of them, as no noise or movement, curses of blows, could have done. She looked around stupidly; the window‐shutters of the house‐windows were closed, as though it were still night.

She signed rapidly to the boy.

“What has happened? Why is the mill not at work thus late?”

The lad left off blowing the thistle feathers on the wind, and grinned, and answered on his hands:

“Flamma is almost dead, they say.”

And he grinned again, and laughed, as far as his uncouth and guttural noises could be said to approach the triumph and the jubilance of laughter.

She stared at him blankly for awhile, bewildered and shaken from the stupor of her own misery. She had never thought of death and her tyrant in unison.

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He had seemed a man formed to live on and on and on unchanging for generations; he was so hard, so unyielding, so hale, so silent, so callous to all pain; it had ever seemed to her—and to the country round,—that death itself would never venture to come to wrestle with him. She stood amongst the red and the purple and the russet gold of the latest summer flowers in the mill‐garden, where he had scourged her as a little child for daring to pause and cool her burning face in the sweetness of the white lilies. Could that ruthless arm be unnerved even by age or death—it seemed to her quite impossible.

All was quite still. Nothing stirred, except the silvery gnats of the morning, and the bees, and the birds in the leaves. There seemed a strange silence everywhere, and the great wheels stood still in the mill‐water; never within the memory of any in that countryside had those wheels failed to turn at sunrise, unless locked by a winter‐frost.

She hastened her steps, and went within. The clock ticked, the lean cat mewed; other sound there was none. She left her wooden shoes at the bottom step, and stole up the steep stairs. The woman Pitchou peered with a scared face out from her master’s chamber.

“Where hast been all night?” she whispered in her grating voice; “thy grandsire lies a‐dying.”

“Dying?”

“Aye,” muttered the old peasant. “He had a stroke yester’‐night, as he came from the corn fair. They brought him home in the cart. He is as good as dead. You are glad.”

“Hush!” muttered the girl fiercely; and she dropt down on the topmost step, and rested her head on her hands. She had nothing to grieve for; and yet there was that in the coarse congratulations which jarred on her and hurt her.

She thought on Manon Dax dead in the snow; she thought of the song‐birds dead in the traps; she thought of the poor coming—coming—coming—through so many winters to beg bread, and going away with empty hands and burdened hearts, cursing God. Was this death‐bed all their vengeance? It was poor justice, and came late.

Old Pitchou stood and looked at her.

“Will he leave her the gold or no?” she questioned in page: 360 herself; musing whether or no it were better to be civil to the one who might inherit all his wealth, or might be cast adrift upon the world—who could say which?

After awhile Folle‐Farine rose silently and brushed her aside, and went into the room.

It was a poor chamber; with a bed of straw and a rough bench or two, and a wooden cross with a picture of the Ascension hung above it. The square window was open, a knot of golden pear leaves nodded to and fro; a linnet sang.

On the bed Claudis Flamma lay; dead already, except for the twitching of his mouth, and the restless wanderings of his eyes. Yet not so lost to life but that he knew her at a glance; and, as she entered, glared upon her, and clenched his numbed hands upon the straw, and with a horrible effort in his almost lifeless limbs, raised the right arm, that alone had any strength or warmth left in it, and pointed at her with a shriek:

“She was a saint—a saint: God took her. So I said:—and was proud. While all the while man begot on her that!

Then with a ghastly rattle in his throat, he quivered, and lay paralysed again; only the eyes were alive, and were still speaking—awfully.

Folle‐Farine went up to his bed, and stood beside it, looking down on him.

“You mean—my mother?”

It was the first time that she had ever said the word. Her voice lingered on the word, as though loth to leave its unfamiliar sweetness.

He lay and looked at her, motionless, impatient, lifeless; save only for the bleak and bloodshot stare of the stony eyes.

She thought that he had heard; but he made no sign in answer.

She sank down on her knees beside his bed, and put her lips close to him.

“Try and speak to me of my mother—once—once,” she murmured, with a pathetic longing in her voice.

A shudder shook his frozen limbs. He made no answer, he only glared on her with a terrible stare that might be horror, repentance, grief, memory, fear—she could not tell.

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Old Pitchou stretched her head from the corner, as a hooded snake from its hole.

“Ask where the money is hid,” she hissed in a shrill whisper. “Ask—ask—while he can yet understand.”

He understood, for a smile grim and horrible disturbed his tight lips a moment.

Folle‐Farine did not hear.

“Tell me of my mother;—tell me, tell me,” she muttered. Since a human love had been born in her heart, she had thought often of that mother whose eyes had never looked on her, and whose arms had never held her.

His face changed, but he did not speak; he gasped for breath, and lay silent; his eyes troubled and confused; it might be that in that moment remorse was with him, and there arose the vain regrets of cruel years.

It might be that dying thus, he knew that from his hearth, as from hell, mother and child had both been driven whilst his lips had talked of God.

A little bell rang softly in the orchard below the casement; the clear voice of a young boy singing a canticle crossed the voice of the linnet; there was a gleam of silver in the sun. The Church bore its Host to the dying man.

They turned her from the chamber.

The eyes of one unsanctified might not gaze upon the mysteries of the blest.

She went out without resistance; she was oppressed and stupefied; she went to the stairs, and there sat down again, resting her forehead on her hands.

The door of the chamber was a little open, and she could hear the murmurs of the priest’s words, and smell the odours of the sacred chrism. A great bitterness came on her mouth.

“One crust in love—to the poor—in the deadly winters, had been better worth than all this oil and prayer,” she thought. And she could see nothing but the old famished face of Manon Dax in the snow and the moonlight, as the old woman had muttered, “God is good.”

The offices of the Church ceased; there reigned an intense stillness; a stillness as of cold.

Suddenly the voice of Claudis Flamma rang out loud and shrill.

“I loved her! Oh Heaven! Thou knowest!”

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She rose and looked through the space of the open door into the death‐chamber.

He had sprung half erect, and with his arms outstretched, gazed at the gladness and the brightness of the day. In his eyes there was a mortal agony, a passion of reproach.

With one last supreme effort, he raised the crucifix which the priests had laid upon his bare anointed breast, and held it aloft, and shook it, and spat on it, and cast it forth from him broken on the ground.

Even Thou art a lie!” he cried—it was the cry of the soul leaving the body,—with the next moment he fell back—dead.

In that one cry his heat had spoken; the cold, hard heart that yet had shut one great love and one great faith in it, and losing these, had withered and shown no wound.

For what agony had been like unto his?

Since who could render him back on earth, or in the grave, that pure white soul he had believed in? Yea—who? Not man; not even God.

Therefore, had he suffered without hope.

She went away from the house and down the stairs, and out into the ruddy noon. She took her way by instinct to the orchard, and there sat down upon a moss‐grown stone within the shadow of the leaves.

All sense was deadened in her under a deep unutterable pity.

From where she sat she could see the lattice window, and the gabled end of the chamber, where the linnet sang, and the yellow fruit of the pear‐tree swung. All about was the drowsy hot weather of the fruit harvest; the murmur of bees; the sweep of the boughs in the water.

Never, in all the years that they had dwelt together beneath one roof, had any good word or fair glance been given her; he had nourished her on bitterness, and for his wage paid her a curse. Yet her heart was sore for him; and judged him without hatred.

All things seemed clear to her, now that a human love had reached her; and this man also, having loved greatly and been betrayed, became sanctified in her sight.

She forgot his brutality, his avarice, his hatred; she remembered only that he had loved, and I his love been fooled, and so had lost his faith in God and man, and had page: 363 thus staggered wretchedly down the darkness of his life, hating himself and every other, and hurting every other human thing that touched him, and crying ever in his blindness, “O Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief!”

And now he was dead.

What did it matter?

Whether any soul of his lived again, or whether body and mind both died for ever, what would it benefit all those whom he had slain?—the little fair birds, poisoned in their song; the little sickly children, starved in the long winters; the miserable women, hunted to their grave for some small debt of fuel or bread; the wretched poor, mocked in their famine by his greed and gain?

It had been woe for him that his love had wronged him, and turned the hard excellence of his life to stone: but none the less had it been woe to them to fall and perish, because his hand would never spare, his heart would never soften.

Her heart was sick with the cold, bitter, and inexorable law, which had let this man drag out his seventy years, cursing and being cursed; and lose all things for a dream of God; and then at the last, upon his death‐bed, know the dream likewise to be false.

“It is so cruel! It is so cruel!” she muttered, where she sat with dry eyes in the shade of the leaves, looking at that window where death was.

And she had reason.

For there is nothing so cruel in life as a Faith;—the Faith, whatever its name may be, that draws a man on all his years through on one narrow path, by one tremulous light, and then at the last, with a laugh—drowns him.

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