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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 490


IN the springtime of the year three gods watched by the river.

The golden flowers of the willows blew in the low winds; the waters came and went; the moon rose full and cold over a silvery stream; the reeds sighed in silence.

Two winters had drifted by, and one hot drowsy summer since their creator had forsaken them, and all the white still shapes upon the walls already had been slain by the cold breath of Time. The green weeds waved in the empty casements; the chance‐sown seeds of thistles and of bell‐flowers were taking leaf between the square stones of the paven places; on the deserted threshold lichens and brambles climbed together; the filmy ooze of a rank vegetation stole over the loveliness of Persephone and devoured one by one the divine offspring of Zeus; about the feet of the bound sun king in Pherœ and over the calm serene mockery of Hermes’ smile the grey nets of the spiders’ webs had been woven to and fro, across and across, with the lacing of page: 491 a million threads, as Fate weaves round the limbs and covers the eyes of mortals as they stumble blindly from their birthplace to their grave. All things, the damp and the dust, the frost and the scorch, the newts and the rats, the fret of the flooded waters, and the stealing sure inroad of the mosses that everywhere grew from the dews and the fogs, had taken and eaten, in hunger or sport, or had touched, and thieved from, then left, gangrened and ruined.

The three gods alone remained; who being the sons of eternal night, are unharmed, unaltered, by any passage of the years of earth. The only gods who never bend beneath the yoke of years; but unblenchingly behold the nations wither as uncounted leaves, and the lands and the seas change their places, and the cities and the empires pass away as a tale that is told; and the deities that are worshipped in the temples alter in name and attributes and cultus, at the wanton will of the age which begot them.

In the still cold moonlit air their shadows stood together. Hand in hand; looking outward through the white night mists. Other gods perished with the faith of each age as it changed; other gods lived by the breath of men’s lips, the tears of prayer, the smoke of sacrifice. But they,—their empire was the universe.

In every young soul that leaps into the light of life rejoicing blindly, Oneiros has dominion; and he alone. In every creature that breathes, from the conqueror resting on a field of blood, to the nest bird cradled in its bed of leaves, Hypnos holds a sovereignty which nothing mortal can long resist and live. And Thanatos,—to him belong every created thing, past, present, and to come; beneath his feet all generations lie; and in the hollow of his hand he holds the worlds; though the earth be tenantless, and the heavens sunless, and the planets shrivel in their courses, and the universe be shrouded in an endless night, yet through the eternal desolation Thanatos still will reign, and through the eternal darkness, through the immeasurable solitudes, he alone will wander, and he still behold his work.

Deathless as themselves their shadows stood; and the worm and the lizard and the newt left them alone and dared not wind about their calm clear brows, and dared not steal to touch the roses at their lips, knowing that ere the birth of the worlds these were and when the worlds shall page: 492 have perished these still will reign on:—the slow, sure, soundless, changeless ministers of an eternal rest, of an eternal oblivion.

A late light strayed in from the grey skies, pale as the primrose flowers that grew amongst the reeds upon the shore; and found its way to them, trembling; and shone in the far‐seeing depths of their unfathomable eyes.

The eyes which spake and said:

“Sleep, dreams, and death:—we are the only gods that answer prayer.”

With the faint gleam of the tender evening, there came across the threshold a human form, barefooted, bareheaded, with broken links of golden chains gleaming here and there upon her limbs, with white robes hanging heavily, soaked with dews and rains; with sweet familiar smells of night‐born blossoms, of wet leaves, of budding palm‐boughs, of dark seed‐sown fields, and the white flower foam of orchards, shedding their fragrance from her as she moved. Her face was bloodless as the faces of the gods; her eyes had a look of blindness; her lips were close locked together; her feet stumbled often, yet her path was straight.

She had hidden by day, she had fled by night; all human creatures had scattered themselves from her in fear. She had made her way, blindly but surely through the cool air; through the shadows and the grasses; through the sighing sounds of bells; through the pastures, where the herds were grazing; through the daffodils blowing in the shallow brooks; through all the things for which her heart had been athirst so long, and which she reached—too late.

Too late for any coolness of fresh grass beneath her limbs to give them rest; too late for any twilight song of missel‐thrush or merle to touch her dumb dead heart to music; too late for any kiss of clustering leaves to heal the shame that blistered on her lips and withered all their youth. And yet she loved them: loved them never yet more utterly than now when she came back to them, faithful as Persephone to the pomegranate flowers of hell.

She crossed the threshold, whilst the reeds that grew in the water by the steps bathed her feet and blew together against her limbs, sorrowing for this life so like their own, which had dreamed of the songs of the gods, and had only heard the hiss of the snakes.

page: 493

She fell at the feet of Thanatos.

The bonds of silence were loosened; the lips dumb so long for love’s sake found voice, and cried out:

“How long—how long? Wilt thou never take pity, and stoop and say ‘Enough?’ I have kept faith; I have kept silence to the end. The gods know. My life for his; my soul for his. So I said; so I have given. I would not have it otherwise. See: I am glad, I am proud, I am strong. See, I have never spoken. The gods have let me perish in his stead. Nay; I suffer nothing. What can it matter for me? Nay; I thank thee that thou hast given my vileness to be the means of his glory. He is great, he has his desire; and I—I am less than the dust. What matter? He must not know; he must never know. And one day I might be weak, or mad, and speak. Take me whilst still I am strong. A little while ago, in a space in the crowds, he saw me. ‘So soon!’ he said,—and smiled. And yet I live! Keep faith with me; keep faith at last. Slay me now, quickly, for pity’s sake; lest once I speak!”

Thanatos, in answer, laid his hand upon her lips; and sealed them, and their secret with them, mute for evermore.

She had been faithful to the end.

To such a faith there is no recompense of man, or of the gods, save only death.

On the shores of the river the winds swept through the reeds; and, sighing amidst them, mourned, saying:

“A thing as free as we, and as fair as ye, is dead; a thing whose joys were made, like ours, from song of the birds, from sight of the sun, from sound of the waters, from smell of the fields; from the tossing spray of the white fruit blossoms, from the play of the grasses at sunrise, from all the innocent liberties of earth and air. She has perished as a trampled leaf, as a broken shell, as a rose that falls in the public ways, as a star that is cast down an autumn night. She has died as the dust dies; and none sorrow. What matter? Men are wise, and gods are just, they say.”

The moon shone cold and clear. The breath of the wild thyme and the willow flowers was sweet upon the air. The leaves blew together, murmuring. The shadows of the clouds were dark upon the stream.

She lay dead at the feet of the Sons of Night.

The noisome creatures of the place stole away trembling; page: 494 the nameless things begotten by loneliness and gloom glided to their holes, as though afraid; the blind newts crept into the utter darkness afar off; the cool winds alone hovered near her, and moved her hair, and touched her limbs with all the fragrance of forest and plain, of the young year and the blossoming woods, of the green garden ways and the silvery sea.

The lives of the earth, and the air, and the waters, alone mourned for this life which was gone from amidst them; free, even in base bondage; pure, though every hand had cast defilement on it; incorrupt, amidst corruption;—for love’s sake.

The Red Mouse sat without, and was afraid, and said:

“To the end she hath escaped me.”