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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 461

CHAPTER VII.

THE poverties of the city devoured her incessantly, like wolves; the temptations of the city crouched in wait for her incessantly, like tigers. She was always hungry, always heartsick, always alone; and there was always at her ear some tempting voice, telling her that she was beautiful and was a fool.

Yet she never dreamed once of listening, of yielding, of taking any pity on herself.

Was this virtue? She never thought of it as such; it was simply instinct; the instinct of a supreme fidelity, in which all slighter and meaner passions were absorbed and slain.

Once or twice, through some lighted casement in some lamp‐lit wood, where the little gay boats flashed on fairy lakes, she would coldly watch that luxury, that indolence, page: 462 that rest of the senses, with a curl on her lips, where she sat or stood, in the shadow of the trees.

“To wear soft stuffs and rich colours, to have jewels in their breasts, to sleep in satin, to hear fools laugh, to have both hands full of gold, that is what women love,” she thought; and laughed a little in her cold wonder, and went back to her high cage in the tower, and called the pigeons in from the rooftops at sunset, and kissed their purple throats, and broke amongst them her one dry crust, and, supperless herself, sat on the parapet and watched the round white moon rise over the shining roofs of Paris.

She was ignorant, she was friendless, she was savage, she was very wretched; but she had a supreme love in her, and she was strong.

A hundred times the Red Mouse tried to steal through the lips which hunger, his servile and unfailing minister, would surely, the Red Mouse thought, disbar and unclose to him sooner or later.

“You will tire, and I can wait, Folle‐Farine,” the Red Mouse had said to her, by the tongue of the old man Sartorian; and he kept his word very patiently.

He was patient, he was wise; he believed in the power of gold, and had no faith in the strength of a woman. He knew how to wait—unseen, so that this rare bird should not perceive the net spread for it in its wildness and wariness. He did not pursue, nor too quickly incense her.

Only in the dark cheerless mists, when she rose to go amongst the world of the sleeping poor at her threshold, she would step on some gift worthy of a queen’s acceptance, without date or word, gleaming there against the stone of the stairs.

When she climbed to her hole in the roof at the close of a day, all pain, all fatigue, all vain endeavour, all bootless labour to and fro the labyrinth of streets, there would be on her bare bench such fruit and flowers as Dorothea might have sent from Paradise, and curled amidst them some thin leaf that would have bought the weight of the pines and of the grapes in gold.

When in the dusk of the night she went, wearily and footsore, through the byways and over the sharp set flints of the quarters of the outcasts and the beggars, sick with the tumult and the stench and the squalor, parched with dust, worn page: 463 with hunger, blind with the endless search for one face amidst the millions, going home—oh, mockery of the word!—to a bed of straw, to a cage among the roofs, to a handful of rice as a meal, to a night of loneliness and cold and misery; at such a moment now and then through the gloom a voice would steal to her, saying:

“Are you not tired yet, Folle‐Farine?”

But she never paused to hear the voice, nor gave it any answer.

The mill dust; the reed by the river; the nameless, friendless, rootless thing that her fate made her, should have been so weak, and so lightly blown by every chance breeze—so the Red Mouse told her; should have asked no better ending than to be wafted up a little while upon the winds of praise, or woven with a golden braid into a crown of pleasure.

Yet she was so stubborn and would not; yet she dared deride her tempters, and defy her destiny, and be strong.

For Love was with her.

And though the Red Mouse lies often in Love’s breast, and is cradled there a welcome guest, yet when Love, once in a million times, shakes off his sloth, and flings the Red Mouse with it from him, he flings with a hand of force; and the beast crouches and flees, and dares meddle with Love no more.

In one of the first weeks of the wilder weather, weather that had the purple glow of the autumnal storms and the chills of coming winter on it, she arose, as her habit was, ere the night was altogether spent, and lit her little taper, and went out upon the rounds to rouse the sleepers.

She had barely tasted food for many hours. All the means of subsistence that she had were the few coins earned from those as poor almost as herself.

Often these went in dept to her, and begged for a little time to get the piece or two of base metal that they owed her; and she forgave them such debts always, not having the heart to take the last miserable pittance from some trembling withered hand which had worked through fourscore years of toil, and found no payment but its wrinkles on its palm; not having the force to fill her own plate with crusts which could only be purchased by the hunger cries of some starveling infant, or by the barter of some little value‐ page: 464 less cross of ivory or rosary of berries long cherished in some aching breast after all else was lost or spent.

She had barely tasted food that day, worst of all she had not even a few grains to scatter to the hungry pigeons as they had fluttered to her on the house‐top in the stormy twilights as the evening fell.

She had lain awake all the night hearing the strokes of the bells sound the hours, and seeming to say to her as they beat on the silence—

“Dost thou dare to be strong, thou? a grain of dust, a reed of the river, a Nothing?”

When she rose, and drew back the iron staple that fastened her door, and went out on the crazy stairway, she struck her foot against a thing of metal. It glitter in the feeble beams from her lamp.

She took it up; it was a little precious casket, such as of old the Red Mouse lurked in, amongst the pearls, to spring out from their whiteness into the purer snow of Gretchen’s breast.

With it was only one written line.

“When you are tired,—Folle‐Farine?”

She was already tired, tired with the horrible thirsty weariness of the young lioness starved and cramped in a cage in a city.

An old crone sat on a niche on the wall. She thrust her lean bony face, lit with wolf’s eyes through the gloom.

“Are you not tired?” she muttered in the formula taught her. “Are you not tired, Folle‐Farine?”

“If I be, what of that?” she answered, and she thrust the case away to the feet of the woman, still shut, and went on with her little dim taper down round the twist of the stairs.

She knew what she did, what she put away. She had come to know, too, what share the sex of her mother takes in the bringing to the lips of their kind the golden pear that to most needs no pressing.

“If I had only your face, and your chances,” had said to her that day a serving‐girl, young, with sallow cheeks, and a hollow voice, and eyes of fever, who lived in a den lower down on the stair‐way.

“Are you mad that you hunger here when you might hang yourself with diamonds like our Lady of Atocha?” page: 465 cried a dancing‐woman with sullen eyes and a yellow skin from the hither side of the mountains, who begged in the streets all day.

So, many tongues hissed to her in different fashions. It seemed to many of them impious in one like her to dare to be stronger than the gold was that assailed her, to dare to live up there among the clouds; and hunger, and thirst, and keep her silence, and strike dumb all the mouths that tried to woo her down, and shake aside all the hands that strove softly to slide their purchase‐monies into hers.

For they chimed in chorus as the bells did:

“Strength in the dust—in a reed—in a Nothing?”

It was a bitter windy morning; the rain fell heavily; there were no stars out, and the air was sharp and raw. She was too used to all changes of weather to take heed of it, but her thin clothes were soaked through, and her hair was drenched as she crossed the courts and traversed the passages to reach her various employers.

The first she roused was a poor sickly woman sleeping feverishly on an old rope mat; the second an old man wrestling with nightmare as the rain poured on him through a hole in the roof, making him dream that he was drowning.

The third was a woman so old that her quarter accredited her with a century of age; she woke mumbling that it was hard at her years to have to go and pick rags for a crumb of bread.

The fourth was a little child not seven; he was an orphan, and the people who kept him sent him out to get herbs in the outlying villages to sell in the streets, and beat him if he let other children be beforehand with him. He woke sobbing; he had dreamed of his dead mother, and cried out that it was so cold, so cold.

There were scores like them at whose doors she knocked, or whose chambers she entered. The brief kind night was over, and they had to arise and work,—or die.

“Why do they not die?” she wondered; and she thought of the dear gods that she had loved, the gods of oblivion.

Truly there were no gifts like their gifts; and yet men knew their worth so little!—but thrust Hypnos back in scorn, dashing their wine‐cups in his eyes; and mocked Oneiros, calling him the guest of love‐sick fools and of mad page: 466 poets; and against Thanatos strove always in hatred and terror as against their dreaded foe.

It was a strange melancholy dreary labour this into which she had entered.

It was all dark. The little light she bore scarcely shed its rays beyond her feet. It was all still. The winds sounded infinitely sad amongst those vaulted passages and the deep shafts of the stairways. Now and then a woman’s voice in prayer or a man’s in blasphemy echoed dully through the old half‐ruined buildings. Otherwise an intense silence reigned there, where all save herself were sleeping.

She used to think it was a city of the dead, in which she alone was living.

And sometimes she had not the heart to waken them; when there was a smile on some wan, worn face that never knew one in its waking hours; or when some childless mother in her lonely bed in sleeping fancy drew young arms about her throat.

This morning when all her tasks were done, and all the toilers summoned to another day of pain, she retraced her steps slowly, bearing the light aloft, and with its feeble rays shed on the colourless splendour of her face, and on her luminous dilated troubled eyes that were for ever seeking what they never found.

A long vaulted passage stretched between her and the foot of the steps that led to the tower; many doors opened on it, the winds wailed through it, and the ragged clothes of the tenants blew to and fro upon the swaying cords. She traversed it, and slowly mounted her own staircase, which was spiral and narrow, with little loopholes ever and again that looked out upon the walls, and higher on the roofs, and higher yet upon the open sky. By one of these she paused and looked out wearily.

It was dark still; great low rain‐clouds floated by; a little caged bird stirred with a sad note; nightly rains swept by from the westward, sweet with the smell of the distant fields.

Her heart ached for the country.

It was so still there in the dusk she knew, even in this wild autumn night, which there would be so purple with leaf shadow, so brown with embracing branches, so grey with silvery faint mists, so lily white with virgin snows. page: 467 Ah, God! to reach it once again, she thought, if only to die in it.

And yet she stayed on in this, which was to her the deepest hell, stayed on because he—in life or death,—was here.

She started as a hand touched her softly, where she stood looking through the narrow space. The eyes of Sartorian smiled on her through the twilight.

“Do you shrink still?” he said, gently. “Put back your knife; look at me quietly; you will not have the casket?—very well. Your strength is folly; yet it is noble. It becomes you. I do you good for ill. I have had search made for your lover, who loves not you. I have found him.”

“Living?”

She quivered from head to foot; the grey walls reeled round her; she feared, she hoped, she doubted, she believed. Was it hell? Was it heaven? She could not tell. She cared not which, so that only she could look once more upon the face of Arslàn.

“Living,” he answered her, and still he smiled. “Living. Come with me, and see how he has used the liberty you gave. Come.”

She staggered to her feet and rose, and held her knife close in the bosom of her dress, and with passionate eyes of hope and dread searched the face of the old man through the shadows.

“Is it the truth?” she muttered. “If you mock me—if you lie—”

“Your knife will sheathe itself in my body, I know. Nay, I have never lied to you. One cannot wear a velvet glove to tame a lioness. Come with me; fear nothing, Folle‐Farine. Come with me, and see with your own eye‐sight how the world of men has dealt with this your god.”

“I will come.”

Sartorian gazed at her in silence.

“You are a barbarian; and so you are heroic always. I would not lie to you, and here I have no need. Come; it is very near to you. A rood of stone can sever two lives, though the strength of all the world cannot unite them. Come.”

She gripped the knife closer, and, with feet that stumbled page: 468 as the feet of a dumb beast that goes out to its slaughter, followed him, through the dark and narrow ways. She had no fear for herself; she had no dread of treachery or peril; for herself she could be strong—always: and the point of the steel was set hard against her breast. But for him?—had the gods forgotten? had he forgot?

She was sick and cold and white with terror as she went. She dreaded the unknown thing her eyes might look upon. She dreaded the truth that she had sought to learn all through the burning months of summer, all through the horrors of the crowded city. Was it well with him, or ill? Had the gods remembered at last? Had the stubborn necks of men been bent to his feet? Was he free?—free to rise in the heights of lofty desire, and never look downward—in pity—once?

They passed in silence through many passage ways of the great stone hive of human life in which she dwelt. Once only Sartorian paused and looked back and spoke.

“If you find him in a woman’s arms—lost in a sloth of passion—what then? Will you stay still, let him have greatness?”

In the gloom he saw her stagger as though struck upon the head. But she rallied and gazed at him in answer with eyes that would neither change nor shrink.

“What is that to you?” she said, in her shut teeth. “Show me the truth: as for him—he has a right to do as he will. Have I said ever otherwise?”

He led the way onward in silence.

This passion, so heroic even in its barbarism, so faithful even in its wretchedness, so pure even in its abandonment, almost appalled him—and yet on it he had no pity.

By his lips the world spoke: the world which, to a creature nameless, homeless, godless, friendless, offered only one choice—shame or death; and for such privilege of choice bade her be thankful to men and to their deity.

He led her through many vaulted ways, and up the shaft of a stone stairway in a distant side of the vast pile, which, from holding many habitants of kings and monks and scholars, had become the populous home of the most wretched travailers of a great city.

“Wait here,” he said, and drew her backward into a hollow in the wall. It was nearly dark.

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As she stood there in the darkness looking down through the narrow space, there came a shadow to her through the gloom—a human shadow, noiseless and voiceless. It ascended the shaft of the stairs with a silent swift tread and passed by her and went onward; as it passed, the rays of her lamp were shed on it, and her eyes at last saw the face of Arslàn.

It was pale as death; his head was sunk on his breast; his lips muttered without the sounds of words, his fair hair streamed in the wind; he moved without haste, without pause, with the pulseless haste, the bloodless quiet of a phantom.

She had heard men talk of those who being dead yet dwelt on earth and moved amidst the living. She had no thought of him in that moment save as amongst the dead. But he, dead or living, could have no horror for her; he, dead or living, ruled her as the moon the sea, and drew her after him, and formed the one law of her life.

She neither trembled nor prayed, nor wept nor laughed, nor cried aloud in her inconceivable joy. Her heart stood still, as though some hand had caught and gripped it.

She was silent in the breathless silence of an unspeakable awe; and with a step as noiseless as his own she glided in his path through the deep shaft of the stairs, upward and upward through the hushed house, through the innumerable chambers, through the dusky shadows, through the chill of the bitter dawn, through the close hive of the sleeping creatures, up and up, into the very roof itself, where it seemed to meet the low and lurid clouds, and to be lifted from the habitations and the homes of men.

A doorway was open; he passed through it; beyond it was a bare square place through which there came the feeblest rays of dawn, making the yellow oil flame that burned in it look dull and hot and garish. He passed into the chamber and stood still a moment, with his head dropped on his chest and his lips muttering sounds without meaning.

The light fell on his face; she saw that he was living. Crouched on his threshold, she watched him, her heart leaping with a hope so keen, a rapture so intense, that its very strength and purity suffocated her like some mountain air too pure and strong for human lungs to breathe.

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He walked in his sleep; that sleep so strange and so terrible, which drugs the sense and yet stimulates the brain: in which the sleeper moves, acts, remembers, returns to daily habits, and resorts to daily haunts, and yet to all the world around him is deaf and blind and indifferent as the dead.

The restless brain, unstrung by too much travail and to little food, had moved the limbs unconsciously to their old haunts and habits; and in his sleep, though sightless and senseless, he seemed still to know and still to suffer. For he moved again after a moment’s rest, and passed straight to the wooden tressels on which a great canvas was outstretched.

He sank down on a rough bench in front of it, and passed his hand before the picture with the fond caressing gesture with which a painter shows to another some wave of light, some grace of colour, and then sat there, stupidly, steadfastly, with his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, and his eyes fastened on the creation before him.

It was a rugged, desolate, wind‐blown chamber, set in the topmost height of the old pile, beaten on by all snows, drenched by all rains, rocked by all storms, bare, comfortless, poor to the direst stretch of poverty, close against the clouds and with the brazen bells and teeming roofs of the city close beneath.

She saw his face once more. She had dwelt by him for many weeks, and no sense of his presence had come to her, no instinct had awakened in him towards the love which clung to him with a faithfulness only as great as its humility.

She, praying always to see this man once more, and die—had been severed from him by the breadth of a stone as by an ocean’s width; and he—doomed to fail always, spending his life in one endeavour, and by that one perpetually vanquished—he had had no space left to look up at a nameless creature with lithe golden limbs, about whose head the white‐winged pigeons fluttered at twilight on the house‐top.

His eyes had swept over her more than once; but they had had no sight for her; they were a poet’s eyes that saw for ever in fancy faces more amorous and divine, limbs lovelier and more lily‐like, mouths sweeter and more persuasive in their kiss, than any they ever saw on earth.

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One passion consumed him, and left him not pause, nor breath, nor pity, nor sorrow for any other thing. He rested from his work and knew that it was good; but this could not content him, for this his fellow‐men denied.

There was scarcely any light, but there was enough for her to read his story by—the story of continual failure.

Yet where she hid upon the threshold her heart beat with wildest music of recovered joy: she had found him, and she had found him alone.

No woman leaned upon his breast; no soft tossed hair bathed his arms, no mouth murmured against his own. He was alone. Her only rival was that one great passion with which she had never in her humility dreamed to meet herself.

Dead he might be to all the world of men, dead in his own sight by a worse fate than any death could give: but for her he was living,—to her what mattered failure or scorn, famine or woe, defeat or despair?

She crouched upon his threshold now, and trembled, with the madness of her joy, and courted its torture. She dared not creep and touch his hand, she dared not steal and kneel a moment at his feet.

He had rejected her. He had had no need of her. He had left her with the first hour that freedom came to him. He had seen her beauty, and learned its lines and hues, and used them for his art, and let it go again, a soulless thing that gave him no delight; a thing so slight that he had thought it scarcely worth his while even to break it for an hour’s sport. This was what he had deemed her; that she knew. She accepted the fate at his hands with the submission that was an integral part of the love she bore him. She had never thought of equality between herself and him; he might have beaten her, or kicked her, as a brute his dog, and she would not have resisted nor resented.

To find him, to watch him from a distance, to serve him in any humble ways she might; to give him his soul’s desire, if any barter of her own soul could purchase it,—this was all she asked. She had told him that he could have no sins to her, and it had been no empty phrase.

She crouched on his threshold, not daring to breathe aloud lest he should hear her.

In the dull light of dawn and of the sickly lamp she saw page: 472 the great canvas on the tressels that his eyes, without seeing it, yet stared at;—it was the great picture of the Barabbas, living its completed life in colour: beautiful, fearful, and divine, full of its majesty of godhead and its mockery of man.

She knew then how the season since they had parted had been spent with him; she knew then, without any telling her in words, how he had given up all his nights and days, all his scant store of gold, all leisure and comfort and peace, all hours of summer sunshine and of midnight cold, all laughter of glad places, and all pleasures of passion or of ease, to render perfect this one work by which he had elected to make good his fame or perish.

And she knew that he must have failed; failed always; that spending his life in one endeavour, circumstance had been stronger than he, and had baffled him perpetually. She knew that it was still in vain that he gave his peace and strength and passions, all the golden years of manhood, and all the dreams and delights of the senses; and that, although these were a treasure which once spent came back nevermore to the hands which scattered them, he had failed to purchase with them, though they were his all, this sole thing which he besought from the waywardness of fate.

“I will find a name or a grave,” he had said, when they had parted: she, with the instinct of that supreme love which clung to him with a faithfulness only equalled by its humility, needed no second look upon his face to see that no gods had answered him save the gods of oblivion;—the gods whose pity he rejected and whose divinity he denied.

For to the proud eyes of a man, looking eagle‐wise at the far‐off sun of a great ambition, the coming of Thanatos could seem neither as consolation nor as vengeance, but only as the crowning irony in the mockery and the futility of life.

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