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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 412

CHAPTER II.

FOR many months she knew nothing of the flight of time. All she was conscious of were burning intolerable pain, continual thirst, and the presence as of an iron hand upon her head, weighing down the imprisoned brain. All she saw in the horrible darkness, which no ray of light ever broke, was the face of Thanatos, with the white rose pressed against his mouth, to whom endlessly she stretched her arms in vain entreaty, but who said only, with the passionless pity of his gaze, “I come in my own time, and neither tarry nor hasten for any supplication of a mortal creature.”

She lived, as a reed torn up from the root may live, by page: 413 the winds that waft it, by the birds that carry it, by the sands that draw its fibres down into themselves, to root afresh whether it will or no.

“The reed was worthy to die!—the reed was worthy to die!” was all that she said, again and again, lying staring with her hot distending eyes into the void as of perpetual night, which was all that she saw around her. The words were to those who heard her, however, the mere meaningless babble of madness.

When they had found her in the cell of the guardhouse, she was far beyond any reach of harm from them, or any sensibility of the worst which they might do to her. She was in a delirious stupor, which left her no more sense of place, or sound, or time than if her brain had been drugged to the agonies and ecstasies of the opium‐eater.

They found her homeless, friendless, nameless; a thing accursed, destitute, unknown; as useless and as rootless as the dead Spanish vagrant lying on the stones beside her. They cast him to the public ditch; they sent her to the public sick wards, a league away; an ancient palace, whose innumerable chambers and whose vast corridors had been given to a sisterhood of mercy, and employed for nigh a century as a public hospital.

In this prison she lay without any sense of the passing of hours and days and months.

The accusation against her fell to the ground harmless; no one pursued it: the gold was gone—somewhere, nowhere. No one knew, unless it were the bee‐wife, and she held her peace.

She was borne, senseless, to the old hospice in the great, dull, saintly, historic town, and there perished from all memories as all time perished to her.

Once or twice the sister of charity who had the charge of her sought to exorcise the demon tormenting this stricken brain and burning body, by thrusting into the hands that clenched the air a leaden image or a cross of sacred wood. But those heathen hands, even in delirium, threw those emblems away always, and the captive would mutter, in a vague incoherence that froze the blood of her hearers:

“The old gods are not dead; they only wait—they only wait! I am theirs—theirs! They forget, perhaps. But I remember. I keep my faith; they must keep theirs, for page: 414 shame’s sake. Heaven or hell? what does it matter? Can it matter to me, so that he has his desire? And that they must give, or break faith, as men do. Persephone ate the pomegranate,—you know—and she went back to hell. So will I—if they will it. What can it matter how the reed dies?—by fire, by steel, by storm? —what matter, so that the earth hear the music? Ah, God! the reed was found worthy to die!—And I—I am too vile, too poor, too shameful even for that!”

And then her voice would rise in a passion of hysteric weeping, or sink away into the feeble wailing of the brain, mortally stricken, and yet dimly sensible of its own madness and weakness; and all through the hours she, in her unconsciousness, would lament for this—for this alone—that the gods had not deemed her worthy of the stroke of death by which, through her, a divine melody might have arisen, and saved the world.

For the fable—which had grown to hold the place of so implicit a faith to her—was in her delirium always present with her; and she had retained no sense of herself except as the bruised and trampled reed which man and the gods alike had rejected as unworthy of sacrifice.

All the late autumn and the early winter came and went; and the cloud was dark upon her mind, and the pain of the blow dealt to her by Taric’s hand gnawed at her brain.

When the winter turned, the darkness in which her reason had been engulphed began to clear, little by little.

As the first small trill of the wren stirred the silence in the old elm boughs; as the first feeble gleam of the new year sunshine struggled through the matted branches of the yews; as the first frail blossom of the pale hepatica timidly peeped forth in the damp moss‐grown walls without, so consciousness slowly returned to her. She was so young; the youth in her refused to be quenched, and recovered its hold upon life as did the song of the birds, the light in the skies, the corn in the seed‐sown earth.

She awakened to strength, to health, to knowledge; she awoke thus blinded and confused, and capable of little save the sense of some loathsome bondage, of some irreparable loss, of some great duty which she had left undone, of some great errand to which she had been summoned, and found wanting.

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She saw four close stone walls around her; she saw her wrists and her ankles bound; she saw a hole high above her head, braced with iron bars, which served to let in the few pallid streaks of daylight which alone ever found their way thither; she saw a black cross in one corner, and before it two women in black, who prayed.

She tried to rise and could not: being fettered. She tore at the rope on her wrists with her teeth like a young tigress at her chains.

They essayed to soothe her, but in vain; they then made trial first of threats, than of coercion; neither affected her; she bit at the knotted cords with her white strong teeth, and, being unable to free herself, fell backward into a savage despair, glaring in mute impotent rage upon her keepers.

“I must go to Paris,” she muttered again and again. “I must go to Paris.”

So much escaped her;—but her secret she was still strong to keep buried in silence in her heart, as she had still kept it even in her madness.

Her old strength, her old patience, her old ferocity and stubbornness and habits of mute resistance had revived in her with the return of life and reason. Slowly she remembered all things,—remembered that she had been accused and hunted down as a thief and brought thither into this prison, as she deemed it, where the closeness of the walls pent her in and shut out the clouds and the stars, the water and the moonrise, the flicker of the green leaves against the gold of sunset, and all the liberty and loveliness of earth and air for which she was devoured by a continual thirst of longing, like the thirst of the caged lark for the fair heights of heaven.

So when they spoke of their god, she answered always as the lark answers when his gaolers speak to him of song;—“Set me free.”

But they thought this madness no less, and kept her bound there in the little dark stone den where no sound ever reached, unless it were the wailing of a bell, and no glimpse of the sky or the trees could ever come to charm to peaceful rest her aching eyes.

At length they grew afraid of what they did. She refused all food; she turned her face to the wall; she stretched herself on her bed of straw motionless and rigid. page: 416 The confinement, the absence of air, were where a living death to the creature whose lungs were stifled unless they drank in the fresh cool draught of winds blowing unchecked over the widths of the fields and forests, and whose eyes ached and grew blind unless they could gaze into the depths of free‐flowing water, or feed themselves in far‐reaching sight upon the radiant skies.

The errant passions in her, the inborn instincts towards perpetual liberty, and the life of the desert and of the mountains which came with the blood of the Zingari, made her prison‐house a torture to her such as is unknown to the house‐born and hearth‐fettered races.

If this wild moorbird died of self‐imposed famine rather than live only to beat its cut wings against the four walls of their pent prison‐house, it might turn ill for themselves; so the religious community meditated. They became afraid of their own work.

One day they said to her:

“Eat and live, and you will be set free to‐morrow.”

She turned for the first time and lifted her face from the straw in which she buried it, and looked them in the eyes.

“Is that true?” she asked.

“Ay,” they answered her. “We swear it by the cross of our blessed Master.”

“If a Christian swear it,—it must be a lie,” she said, with the smile that froze their timid blood.

But she accepted the food and the drink which they brought her, and broke her fast, and slept through many hours; strengthened, as by strong wine, by that one hope of freedom beneath the wide pure skies.

She asked them on awakening what the season of the year was then. They told her it was the early spring.

“The spring,” she echoed dully,—all the months were a blank to her, which had rolled by since that red autumn evening, when in the cell of the guard‐house the voice of Taric had chaunted in drink and delirium the passion songs of Spain.

“Yes. It is spring,” they said; and one sister, younger and gentler than the rest, reached from its place above the crucifix the bough of the golden catkins of the willow, which served them at their holy season as an emblem of the palms of Palestine.

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She looked at the drooping grace of the branches, with their buds of amber, long and in silence; then with a passion of weeping she turned her face from them as from the presence of some intolerable memory.

All down the shore of the river, amongst the silver of the reeds, the willows had been in blossom when she had first looked upon the face of Arslàn.

“Stay with us,” the women murmured, drawn to her by the humanity of those, the first, tears that she had ever shed in her imprisonment. “Stay with us; and it shall go hard if we cannot find a means to bring you to eternal peace.”

She shook her head wearily.

“It is not peace that I seek,” she murmured.

Peace?

He would care nothing for peace on earth or in heaven, she knew. What she had sought to gain for him—what she would seek still when once she should get free—was the eternal conflict of a great fame in the world of men. Since this was the only fate which in his sight had any grace or any glory in it.

They kept their faith with her. They opened the doors of her prison‐house and bade her depart in peace, pagan and criminal though they deemed her.

She reeled a little dizzily as the first blaze of the full daylight fell on her. She walked out with unsteady steps into the open air where they took her, and felt it cool and fresh upon her cheek, and saw the blue sky above her.

The gates which they unbarred were those at the back of the hospital, where the country stretched around. They did not care that she should be seen by the people of the streets.

She was left alone on a road outside the great building that had been her prison‐house; the road was full of light, it was straight and shadowless; there was a tall tree near her full of leaf; there was a little bird fluttering in the sand at her feet; the ground was wet, and sparkled with rain drops.

All these little things came to her like the notes of a song heard far away—far away—in another world. They were so familiar, yet so strange.

There was a little yellow flower growing in a tuft of page: 418 grasses straight in front of her; a little wayside weed; a root and blossom of the field‐born celandine.

She fell on her knees in the dust by it, and laughed and wept, and quivering, kissed it and blessed it that it grew there. It was the first thing of summer and of sunshine she had seen so long.

A man in the gateway saw her and shook her, and bade her get from the ground.

“You are fitter to go back again,” he muttered; “you are mad, still, I think.”

Like a hunted animal she stumbled to her feet and fled from him; winged by the one ghastly terror that they would claim her and chain her back again.

They had said that she was free: but what were words? They had taken her once; they might take her twice.

She ran, and ran, and ran.

The intense fear that possessed her lent her irresistible force. She coursed the earth with the swiftness of a hare. She took no heed whence she went; she only knew that she fled from the one unutterable horror of that place. She thought they were right; that she was mad.

It was a level green silent country which was round her, with little loveliness and little colour; but as she went she laughed incessantly in the delirious gladness of her liberty.

She tossed her head back to watch the flight of a single swallow; she caught a handful of green leaves and buried her face in them. She listened in a very agony of memory to the rippling moisture of a little brook. She followed with her eyes the sweeping vapours of the rain‐clouds, and when a west wind rose and blew a cluster of loose apple blossoms between her eyes—she could no longer bear the passionate pain of all the long‐lost sweetness, but flinging herself downward, sobbed with the ecstasy of an exile’s memories.

The hell in which she had dwelt had denied them to her for so long.

“Ah God!” she thought, “I know now—one cannot be utterly wretched whilst one has still the air and the light and the winds of the sky.”

And she arose, calmer, and went on her way; wondering, even in that hour, why men and women trod the daily page: 419 measures of their lives with their eyes downward and their ears choked with the dust; hearkening so little to the sound of the breeze in the grasses, looking so little to the passage of the clouds against the sun.

When the first blindness and rapture of her liberty had a little passed away, and abated in violence, she stood in the midst of the green fields and the fresh woods, a strange, sad, lonely figure of absolute desolation.

Her clothes were in rags; her red girdle had been changed by weather to a dusky purple; her thick clustering hair had been cut to her throat; her radiant hues were blanched, and her immense eyes gazed woefully from beneath their heavy dreamy lids, like the eyes of an antelope whom men vainly starve in the attempt to tame.

She knew neither where to go nor what to do. She had not a coin nor a crust upon her. She could not tell where she then stood, nor where the only home that she had ever known might lie.

She had not a friend on earth and she was seventeen years old, and was beautiful and was a woman.

She stood and looked; she did not weep; she did not pray; her heart seemed frozen in her. She had the gift she had craved;—and how could she use it?

The light was obscured by the clouds, great sweet rain clouds which came trooping from the west. Woods were all round, and close against her were low brown cattle, cropping clovered grass. Away on the horizon was a vague, vast golden cloud, like a million threads of gossamer glowing in the sun.

She did not know what it was; yet it drew her eyes to it.

A herdsman came by her to the cattle. She pointed to the cloud.

“What is that light?” she asked him.

The cowherd stared and laughed.

“That light? It is only the sun shining on the domes and the spires of Paris.”

“Paris!”

She echoed the name with a great sob, and crossed her hands upon her breast, and in her way thanked God.

She had had no thought that she could be thus near to it.

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She asked no more, but set straight on her way thither. It looked quite close.

She had exhausted the scanty strength which she owned in her first flight; she could go but slowly; and the roads were heavy across the ploughed lands, and through the edges of the woods. She walked on and on till it grew dusk, then she asked of a woman weeding in a field how far it might be yet to Paris.

The woman told her four leagues and more.

She grew deadly cold with fear. She was weak, and she had no hope that she could reach it before dawn; and she had nothing with which to buy shelter for the night. She could see it still; a cloud, now as of fireflies, upon the purple and black of the night; and in a passionate agony of longing she once more bent her limbs and ran—thinking of him.

To her the city of the world, the city of the kings, the city of the eagles, was only of value for the sake of this one life it held.

It was useless. All the strength she possessed was already spent. The feebleness of fever still sang in her ears and trembled in her blood. She was sick and faint, and very thirsty.

She struck timidly at a little cottage door, and asked to rest the night there.

The woman glanced at her and slammed‐to the door. At another and yet another she tried; but at neither had she any welcome; they muttered of the hospitals and drove her onward. Finally, tired out, she dropped down on the curled hollow of an old oak stump that stood by the wayside, and fell asleep, seeing to the last through her sinking lids that cloud of light where the great city lay.

The night was cold; the earth damp; it was far on into night; she stretched her limbs out wearily and sighed, and dreamed that Thanatos touched her with his asphodels, and whispered, “Come.”

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