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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 448

CHAPTER VI.

THAT night they halted in a little bright village of the leafy and fruitful zone of the city—one of the fragrant and joyous pleasure‐places amongst the woods where the students and the young girls came for draughts of milk and plunder of primroses, and dances by the light of the spring moon, and love‐words murmured as they fastened violets in each other’s breasts.

The next day she entered Paris with them as one of their own people.

“You may be great here, if you choose,” they said to her, and laughed.

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She scarcely heard. She only knew that here it was that Arslàn had declared that fame—or death—should come to him.

The golden cloud dissolved as she drew near to it. A great city might be beautiful to others; to her it was only as its gilded cage is to a mountain bird. The wilderness of roofs, the labyrinth of streets, the endless walls of stone, the ceaseless noises of the living multitude, these were horrible to the free‐born blood of her; she felt blinded, caged, pent, deafened. Its magnificence failed to daunt, its colour to charm, its pageantry to beguile her. Through the glad and gorgeous ways she went, wearily and sick of heart, for the rush of free winds and the width of free skies, as a desert‐born captive, with limbs of bronze and the eyes of the lion, went fettered past the palaces of Rome in the triumphal train of Africanus or Pompeius.

The little band with which she travelled wondered what her eyes so incessantly looked for, in that perpetual intentness with which they searched every knot of faces that was gathered together as a swarm of bees clusters in the sunshine. They could not tell; they only saw that her eyes never lost that look.

“Is it the Past or the Future that you search for always?” the shrewdest of them asked her.

She shuddered a little, and made him no answer. How could she tell which it was?—whether it would be a public fame or a nameless grave that she would light on at the last?

She was a mystery to them.

She minded poverty so little. She was as content on a draught of water and a bunch of cress as others are on rarest meats and wines. She bore bodily fatigue with an Arab’s endurance and indifference. She seemed to care little whether suns beat on her, or storms drenched her to the bone; whether she slept under a roof, or the boughs of a tree; whether the people hissed her for a foreign thing of foul omen, of clamoured aloud in the streets praise of her perfect face. She cared nothing.

She was silent always, and she never smiled.

“I must keep my liberty!” she had said; and she kept it.

By night she toiled ceaselessly for her new masters; docile, patient, enduring, laborious, bearing the yoke of this page: 450 labour as she had borne that of her former slavery, rather than owe a crust to alms, a coin to the gaze of a crowd. But by the day she searched the city ceaselessly and alone, wandering, wandering, always on a quest that was never ended.

For amidst the millions of faces that met her gaze, Arslàn’s was not; and she was too solitary, too ignorant, and locked her secret too tenaciously in her heart, to be able to learn tidings of his name.

So the months of the spring and the summer time went by; it was very strange and wondrous to her.

The human world seemed suddenly all about her; the quiet earth, on which the cattle grazed, and the women threshed and ploughed, and the sheep browsed the thyme, and the mists swept from stream to sea, this was all gone; and in its stead there was a world of tumult, colour, noise, change, riot, roofs piled on roofs, clouds of dust yellow in the sun, walls peopled with countless heads of flowers and of women; throngs, various of hue as garden‐beds of blown anemones; endless harmonies and discords always rung together from silver bells, and brazen trumpets, and the clash of arms, and the spray of waters, and the screams of anguish, and the laughs of mirth, and the shrill pipes of an endless revelry, and the hollow sighs of a woe that had no rest.

For the world of a great city, of “the world as it is man’s,” was all about her; and she loathed it, and sickened in it, and hid her face from it whenever she could, and dreamed, as poets dream in fever of pathless seas and tawny fields of weeds, and dim woods filled with the song of birds, and cool skies brooding over a purple moor, and all the silence and the loveliness and the freedom of “the world as it is God’s.”

“You are not happy?” one man said to her.

“Happy!”

She said no more; but he thought, just so had he seen a rose‐crested golden‐eyed bird of the great savannahs look, shut in a cage in a showman’s caravan, and dying slowly, with dulled plumage and drooped head, while the street mob of a town thrust their fingers through the bars and mocked it, and called to it to chatter and be gay.

“Show your beauty once—just once amidst us on the stage, and on the morrow you can choose your riches and page: 451 your jewels from the four winds of heaven as you will,” the players urged on her a hundred times.

But she refused always.

Her beauty—it was given to the gods, to take or to leave, in life or death, for him.

The months went on; she searched for him always. A horrible unending vigil that never seemed nearer its end. Vainly, day by day, she searched the crowds and the solitudes, the gates of the palaces and the vaults of the cellars. She thought she saw him a thousand times; but she could never tell whether it were truth or fancy. She never met him face to face; she never heard his name. There is no desert wider, no maze more unending, than a great city.

She ran hideous peril with every moment that she lived; but by the strength and the love that dwelt together in her she escaped them. Her sad, wide, open, pathetic eyes ever searched only for his face and saw no other; her ear, ever strained to listen for one voice, was dead to every accent of persuasion or of passion.

When men tried to tell her she was beautiful, she looked them full in the eyes and laughed, a terrible dreary laugh of scorn that chilled them to the bone. When the gay groups on balconies, that glanced golden in the sun, flung sweetmeats sweatmeats at her, and dashed wine on the ground, and called to her for her beauty’s sake to join them, she looked at them with a look that had neither envy nor repugnance in it, but only a cold mute weariness of contempt.

One day a great sculptor waylaid her, and showed her a pouch full of money and precious stones. “All that, and more, you shall have, if you will let me make a cast of your face and your body once.” In answer, she showed him the edge of her hidden knife.

One day a young man, unlike to all the ragged and toil‐worn crowds that alone beheld her, came in those crowded quarters of the poor, and watched her with eyes aglow like those of the youth in the old market‐square about the cathedral, and waylaid her, later, in solitude, and slid in her palm a chain studded with precious stones of many colours.

“I am rich,” he murmured to her. “I am a prince. I can make your name a name of power, if only you will come.”

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“Come whither?” she asked him.

“Come with me—only to my supper‐table—for one hour; my horses wait.”

She threw the chain of stones at her feet.

“I have no hunger,” she said, carelessly. “Go, ask those that have to your feast.”

And she gave no other phrase in answer to all the many honeyed and persuasive words with which in vain he urged her, that night and many other night, until he wearied.

One day, in the green outskirts of the city, passing by under a gilded gallery, and a wide window full of flowers, and hung with delicate draperies, there looked out the fair head of a woman, with diamonds in the ears, and a shroud of lace about it, while against the smiling scornful mouth a jewelled hand held a rose; and a woman’s voice called to her, mockingly:

“Has the devil not heard you yet, that you still walk barefoot in the dust on the stones, and let the sun beat on your head? O fool! there is gold in the air, and gold in the dust, and gold in the very gutter here, for a woman!”

And the face was the face, and the voice the voice, of the gardener’s wife of the old town by the sea.

She raised, to the gilded balcony above, her great sorrowful musing eyes, full of startled courage: soon she comprehended; and then her gaze gave back scorn for f r scorn.

“Does that brazen scroll shade you better than did the trellised vine?” she said, with her voice ascending clear in its disdain. “And are those stones in your breast any brighter than the blue was in the eyes of your child?”

The woman above cast the rose at her and laughed, and withdrew from the casement.

She set her heel on the rose, and trod its leaves down in the dust. It was a yellow rose, scentless and comely—an emblem of pleasure and wealth. She left it where it lay, and went onward.

The sweet sins, and all their rich profits, that she might take as easily as she could have taken the rose from the dust, had no power to allure her.

The gilded balcony, the velvet couch, the jewels in the ears, the purple draperies, the ease and the affluence and the joys of the sights and the senses, these to her were as page: 453 powerless to move her envy, these to her seemed as idle as the blow‐balls that a child’s breath floated down the current of a summer breeze.

When once a human ear has heard the whispers of the gods by night steal through the reeds by the river, never again to it can there sound anything but discord and empty sound in the tinkling cymbals of brass, and the fools’ bells of silver, in which the crowds in their deafness imagine the songs of the heroes and the music of the spheres.

“There are only two trades in a city,” said the actors to her, with a smile as bitter as her own, “only two trades—to buy souls and to sell them. What business have you here, who do neither the one nor the other?”

There was music still in this trampled reed of the river, into which the gods had once bidden the stray winds and the wandering waters breathe their melody; but there, in the press, the buyers and the sellers only saw in it a frail thing of the sand and the stream, only made to be woven for barter, or bind together the sheaves of the roses of pleasure.

By‐and‐by they grew so impatient of this soul which knew its right errand so little that it would neither accept temptation itself nor deal it to others, they grew so impatient to receive that golden guerdon from passion and evil which they had foreseen as their sure wage for her when they had drawn her with them to the meshes of the city, that they betrayed her, stung and driven into treachery by the intolerable reproach of her continual strength, her continual silence.

They took a heavy price, and betrayed her to the man who had set his soul upon her beauty, to make it live naked and vile and perfect for all time in marble. She saved herself by such madness of rage, such fury of resistance, as the native tigress knows in the glare of the torches or the bonds of the cords.

She smote the sculptor with her knife; a tumult rose round; voices shouted that he was stabbed; the men who had betrayed her raised loudest the outcry. In the darkness of a narrow street, and of a night of tempest, she fled from them, and buried herself in the dense obscurity which is one of the few privileges of the outcasts.

It was very poor, this quarter where she found refuge; page: 454 men and women at the lowest ebb of life gathered there together. There was not much crime; it was too poor even for that. It was all that piteous, hopeless class that is honest, and suffers and keeps silent—so silent that no one notices when death replaces life.

Here she got leave to dwell a little while in the topmost corner of a high tower, which rose so high, so high, that the roof of it seemed almost like the very country itself. It was so still there, and so fresh, and the clouds seemed so near, and the pigeons flew so close about it all day long, and at night so trustfully sought their roost there.

In a nook of it she made her home: it was very old, very desolate, very barren; yet she could bear it better than she could any lower range of dwelling.

She could see the sunrise and the sunset; she could see the rain‐mists and the planets; she could look down on all the white curl of the smoke; and she could hear the bells ring with a strange peculiar sweetness striking straight to her ear across the wilderness of roofs. And then she had the pigeons: they were not much, but they were something of the old fresh country life; and now and then they brought a head of clover or a spray of grass in their beaks; and at sight of it the tears would rush into her eyes, and though it was pain, it yet a sweeter one than any pleasure that she had.

She maintained herself still without alms, buying her right to live there, and the little food that sufficed for her, by one of those offices in which the very poor contrive to employ those still poorer than themselves.

They slept so heavily, those people who the weight of twenty hours’ toil, the pangs of hunger, and the chills of cold upon them, whenever they laid down, and who would so willingly have slept for ever with any night they laid their heads upon their sacks of rags. But, so long as they woke at all, they needed to wake with the first note of the sparrows in the dark. She, so long used to rise ere ever the first streaks of the day were seen, roused scores of them; and in payment they gave her the right to warm herself at their stove, a handful of their chestnuts, a fragment of their crust, a little copper piece—anything that they could afford or she would consent to take. A woman, who had been the reveilleuse of the quarter many years, had died; and they page: 455 were glad of her;—“Her eyes have no seep in them,” they said; and they found that she never failed.

It was a strange trade—to rise whilst yet for the world it was night, and go to and fro the dreary courts, up and down the gloom of the staircases, and in and out the silent chambers, and call all those sons and daughters of wretchedness from the only peace that their lives knew. So often she felt loath to wake them; so often she stood beside the bundle of straw on which some dreaming creature, sighing and smiling in her sleep, murmured of her home, and had not the heart rudely to shatter those mercies of the night.

It was a strange sad office, to go alone amongst all those sleepers in the stillness that came before the dawn, and move from house to house, from door to door, from bed to bed, with the one little star of her lamp lone burning.

They were all so poor, so poor, it seemed more cruel than murder only to call them from their rest to work, and keep alive in them that faculty of suffering which was all they gained from their humanity.

Her pity for them grew so great that her heart perforce softened to them also. Those strong men gaunt with famine, those white women with their starved children on their breasts, those young maidens worn blind over the needle or the potter’s clay, those little children who staggered up in the dark to go to the furnace, or the wheel, or the powder‐mill, or the potato‐fields outside the walls,—she could neither fear them nor hate them, nor do aught save sorrow for them with a dumb, passionate, wondering grief.

She saw these people despised for no shame, wretched for no sin, suffering eternally, though guilty of no other fault than that of being in too large numbers on an earth too small for the enormous burden of its endless woe. She found that she had companions in her misery, and that she was not alone under that bitter scorn which had been poured on her. In a manner she grew to care for these human creatures, all strangers, yet whose solitude she entered, and whose rest she roused. It was a human interest, a human sympathy. It drew her from the despair that had closed around her.

And some of these in turn loved her.

Neither poverty nor wretchedness could dull the lustrous, page: 456 deep‐hued, flowerlike beauty that was hers by nature. As she ascended the dark stone stairs with the little candle raised above her head, and knocking low entered the place where they slept, the men and the children alike dreamed of strange shapes of paradise and things of sorcery.

“When she wakes us the children never cry,” said a woman whom she always summoned an hour before dawn to rise and walk two leagues to a distant factory. It was new to her to be welcomed, it was new to see the children smile because she touched them. It lifted a little the ice that had closed about her heart.

It had become the height of the summer. The burning days and the sultry nights poured down on her bare head and blinded her, and filled her throat with the dust of the public ways, and parched her mouth with the thirst of over‐driven cattle.

All the while in the hard hot glare she searched for one voice. All the while in the hard brazen din she listened for one voice.

She wandered all the day, half the night. They wondered that she woke so surely with every dawn; they did not know that seldom did she ever sleep. She sought for him always;—sought the busy crowds of the living; sought the burial grounds of the dead.

As she passed through the endless ways in the wondrous city; as she passed by the vast temples of art; as she passed by the open doors of the sacred places which the country had raised to the great memories that it treasured; it became clearer to her—this thing of his desires,—this deathless name amidst a nation, this throne on the awed homage of a world for which his life had laboured and striven, and sickened for and endlessly desired.

The great purpose, the great end, to which he had lived grew tangible and present to her; and in her heart, as she went, she said ever, “Let me only die as the reed died;—what matter,—so that only the world speak his name?”

One night she stood on the height of the leads of the tower. The pigeons had gone to roost; the bells had swung themselves into stillness; far below the changing crowds were moving ceaselessly, but to that calm altitude no sound arose from them. The stars were out, and a great silver moon bathed half the skies in its white glory. In the page: 457 stones of the parapet wind‐sown blossoms blew to and fro heavy with dew.

The day had been one of oppressive heat. She had toiled all through it, seeking—seeking—seeking—what she never found. She was covered with dust; parched with thirst; foot‐weary; sick at heart. She looked down on the mighty maze of the city, and thought—“how long—how long?”

Suddenly a cool hand touched her, a soft voice murmured at her ear.

Turning in the gloom she faced Sartorian. A great terror held her mute and breathless there; gazing in the paralysis of horror at this frail life, which was for her the incarnation of the world, and by whose lips the world said to her,—“Come, eat and drink, and sow your garments with gems, and kiss men on the mouth whilst you slay them, and plunder and poison, and laugh and be wise. For all your gods are dead; and there is but one god now—that god is gold.”

“You must be tired, surely,” the old man said, with soft insistence. “You never find what you seek; you are always alone, always hungered and poor; always wretched,—Folle‐Farine. Ah! you would not eat my golden pear. It was not wise.”

He said so little; and yet—these slow subtle brief phrases pierced her heart with the full force of their odious meaning. She leaned against the wall, breathing hard and fast, mute, for the moment paralysed.

“You fled away from me that night. It was heroic, foolish, mad. Yet I bear no anger against it. You have not loved the old dead gods for nought. You have the temper of their times. You obey them; though they betray you and forget you,—Folle‐Farine.”

She gazed at him, fascinated by her very loathing of him, as the bird by the snake.

“Who told you?” she muttered.

“Who told me, that you dwell here? The sun has a million rays; so has gold a million eyes; do you not know? There is nothing you have not done that has not been known to me. But I can always wait;—Folle‐Farine. You are very strong; you are very weak, of course;—you have a faith; and you follow it; and it leads you on and on, on and on, and one day it will disappear—and you will plunge page: 458 after it,—and it will drown you. You seek for this man and you cannot find even his grave. You are like a woman who seeks for her lover on a battle‐fields. But the world is a carnage where the vultures soon pick bare the bones of the slain, and all skeletons look alike, and are most unlovely—Folle‐ Farine.”

“You came—to say this?” she said, through her locked teeth.

“Nay—I came to see your beauty, your ice‐god tired soon; but I—. My golden pear would have been better vengeance for a slighted passion than this beggar’s quarter, and these wretched rags—.”

She held her misery and her shame, and her hatred alike down under enforced composure.

“There is no shame here,” she said, between her teeth. “A beggar’s quarters, perhaps; but there poor copper coins and these rags I earn with clean hands.”

He smiled with that benignant pity, with that malign mockery, which stung her so ruthlessly.

“No shame? Oh, Folle‐Farine, did I not tell you, that, live as you may, shame will always be your garment in life and in death? You—a thing beautiful, nameless, homeless, accursed, who dares to dream to be innocent likewise! The world will clothe you with shame, whether you choose it or not. But the world, as I say, will give you one choice. Take its red robe boldly from it, and weight it with gold and encrust it with jewels. Believe me, the women who wear the white garments of virtue will envy you the red robe bitterly, then.”

Her arms were crossed upon her breast; her eyes gazed at him with the look he had seen in the gloom of the evening, under the orchards by the side of the rushing mill‐water.

“You came—to say this?”

“Nay; I came to see your beauty, Folle‐Farine. Your northern god soon tired, I say; but I—. Look yonder a moment,” he pursued; and he motioned downward to where the long lines of light gleamed in the wondrous city which was stretched at their feet; and the endless murmur of its eternal sea of pleasure floated dimly to them on the soft night air. “See here, Folle‐Farine: you dwell with the lowest; you are the slave of the street mobs; no eyes see page: 459 you except those of the harlot, the beggar, the thief, the outcast; your wage is a crust and a copper coin; you have the fate of your namesake, the dust, to wander a little while, and then sink on the stones of the streets. Yet that you think worthy and faithful, because it is pure, alike, of alms and of vice. Oh, beautiful fool! what would your lost lover say if beholding you here, amidst the reek of the mob and the homage of thieves? He would say of you the most bitter thing that a man can say of a woman: ‘She has sunk into sin, but she has been powerless to gild her sin, or make it of more profit than her innocence.’ And a man has no scorn like the scorn which he feels for a woman who sells her soul—at a loss. You see?—ah! surely you see, Folle‐Farine?”

She shook like a leaf where she stood, with the yellow and lustrous moonlight about her. She saw—she saw now! And she had been mad enough to dream that if she lived in honesty, and by labour that she loathed won back, with hands clean of crime as of alms, the gold which he had left as the wages of her beauty, and found him and gave it to him without a word, he would at least believe—believe so much as this, that her hunger had been famine, and her need misery, and her homelessness that of the stray dog which is kicked from even a ditch, and hunted from even a graveyard: but that through it all she had never touched one coin of that cruel and merciless gift.

“You see?” pursued the low, flute‐like moaning mockery of her tormentor’s voice. “You see? You have all the shame: it is your birthright; and you have nothing of the sweetness which may go with shame for a woman who has beauty. Now, look yonder. There lies the world, which when I saw you last was to you only an empty name. Now you know it—know it, at least, enough to be aware of all you have not, all you might have in it, if you took my golden pear. You must be tired, Folle‐Farine,—to stand homeless under the gilded balconies; to be footsore in the summer dust amongst the rolling carriages; to stand outcast and famished before the palace gates; to see the smiles upon a million mouths, and on them all not one smile upon you; to show yourself hourly amongst a mob, that you may buy a little bread to eat, a little straw to rest on! You must be tired, Folle‐Farine!”

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She was silent where she stood in the moonlight, with the clouds seeming to lean and touch her, and far beneath the blaze of the myriad of lights shining through the soft darkness of the summer night.

Tired!—ah, God!—tired, indeed. But not for any cause of which he spake.

“You must be tired. Now, eat of my golden pear; and there, where the world lies yonder at our feet, no name shall be on the mouths of men as your name shall be in a day. Through the crowds you shall be borne by horses fleet as the winds; or you shall lean above them from a gilded gallery, and mock them at your fancy there on high in a cloud of flowers. Great jewels shall beam on you like planets; and the only chains that you shall wear shall be links of gold, like the chains of a priestess of old. Your mere wish shall be as a sorcerer’s wand, to bring you the thing of our idlest desire. You have been despised!—what vengeance sweeter than to see men grovel to win your glance, as the swine at the feet of Circe? You have been scorned and accursed! —what retribution fuller than for women to behold in you the sweetness and magnificence of shame, and through you, envy, and fall, and worship the Evil which begot you? Has humanity been so fair a friend to you that you can hesitate to strike at its heart with such a vengeance—so symmetrical in justice, so cynical in irony? Humanity cast you out to wither at your birth,—a thing rootless, nameless, only meet for the snake and the worm. If you bear poison in your fruit, is that your fault, or the fault of the human hands that cast the chance‐sown weed out on the dunghill to perish? I do not speak of passion. I use no amorous phrase. I am old and ill‐favoured; and I know that, any way, you will for ever hate me. But the rage of the desert‐beast is more beautiful than the meek submission of the animal timid and tame. It is the lioness in you that I care to chain; but your chains shall be of gold, Folle‐Farine; and all women will envy. Name your price, set it high as you will; there is nothing that I will refuse. Nay, even I will find your lover, who loves not you; and I will let you have your fullest vengeance on him. A noble vengeance, for no other would be worthy of your strength. Living or dead, his genius shall be made known to men; and, before another summer comes, all the world page: 461 shall toss aloft in triumph the name that is now nothing as the dust is;—nothing as you are, Folle‐Farine!”

She heard in silence to the end.

On the height of the roof‐tops all was still; the stars seemed to beam close against her sight; below was the infinite space of the darkness, in which lines of light glittered where the haunts of pleasure lay; all creatures near her slept; the wind‐sown plants blew to and fro, rooted in the spaces of the stones.

As the last words died softly on the quiet of the air, in answer, she reached her hand upward, broke off a tuft of the yellow wall‐blossom, and cast it out with one turn of her wrist down into the void of the darkness.

“What do I say?” she said, slowly. “What? Well, this: I could seize you, and cast you down into the dark below there, as easily as I cast that tuft of weed. And why I hold my hand I cannot tell; it would be just.”

And she turned away and walked from him in the gloom, slowly, as though the deed she spake of tempted her.

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