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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 63


THE hottest sun of a hot summer shone on a straight dusty road. An old man was breaking stones by the wayside; he was very old, very bent, very lean, worn by ninety years if he had been worn by one; but he struck yet with a will, and the flints flew in a thousand pieces under his hammer, as though the youth and the force of nineteen years instead of ninety were at work on them.

When the noon bell rang from a little odd straight steeple, with a slanting roof, that peered out of the trees to the westward, he laid his hammer aside, threw off his brass‐plated cap, wiped his forehead of its heat and dust, sat down on his pile of stones, and took out hard black crust and munched it with teeth that were still strong and white.

The noontide was very quiet; the heat was intense, for there had been no rainfall for several weeks; there was one lark singing high up in the air, with its little breast lifted to the sun; but all the other birds were mute and invisible, doubtless hidden in some delicious shadow, swinging drowsily on tufts of linden bloom, or underneath the roofing of broad chestnut leaves.

The road on either side was lined by the straight forms of endless poplars, standing side by side as sentinels. The fields were all ablaze on every acre with the gold of ripening corn or mustard, and the scarlet flame of innumerable poppies. Here and there they were broken by some little house, white or black, or painted in bright colours, which lifted up amongst its leaves a little tower like a sugar‐loaf page: 64 or a carved gable, and a pointed arch beneath it. Now and then they were divided by rows of trees standing breathless in the heat, or breadths of apple orchards, some with early fruits already ripe, some with fruits as yet green as their foliage.

Through it all the river ran, silver in the light; with shallow fords, where the deep‐flanked bullocks drank; and ever and anon an ancient picturesque bridge of wood, time‐bronzed and moss‐embroidered.

The old man did not look round once; he had been on these roads a score of years; the place had to him the monotony and colourlessness which all long familiar scenes wear to the eyes that are weary of them.

He was ninety‐five; he had to labour for his living; he ate black bread; he had no living kith or kin; no friend save in the mighty legion of the dead; and he sat in the scorch of the sun; he hated the earth and the sky, the air and the landscape: why not? They had no loveliness for him; he only knew that the flies stung him and that the red ants could crawl through the holes in his shoes, and bite him sharply with their little piercing teeth.

He sat in such shade as the tall lean poplar gave, munching his hard crusts; he had a fine keen profile and a long white beard that were thrown out as sharply as a sculpture against the golden sunlight, in which the gnats were dancing. His eyes were fastened on the dust as he ate; blue piercing eyes that had still something of the fire of their youth; and his lips under the white hair moved a little now and then, half audibly.

His thoughts were with the long dead years of an unforgotten time—a time that will be remembered as long as the earth shall circle round the sun.

With the present he had nothing to do; he worked to satisfy the lingering cravings of a body that age seemed to have lost all power to kill; he worked because he was too much of a man still to beg, and because suicide looked to his fancy like a weakness, but life for all that was over with him; life in the years of his boyhood had been a thing so splendid, so terrible, so drunken, so divine, so tragic, so intense, that the world seemed now to him to have grown pale and grey and pulseless, with no sap in its veins, no hue in its suns, no blood in its humanity.

page: 65

For his memory held the days of Thermidor; the weeks of the White Terror; the winter dawn, when the drums rolled out a King’s threnody; the summer nights, when all the throats of Paris cried “Marengo!”

He had lived in the wondrous awe of that abundant time when every hour was an agony or a victory; when every woman was a martyr or a bacchanal; when the same scythe that had severed the flowering grasses served also to cleave the fair breasts of the mother, the tender throat of the child; when the ground was purple with the blue blood of men as with the juices of out‐trodden grapes, and when the waters were white with the bodies of virgins as with the moon‐fed lilies of summer. And how he sat here by the wayside, in the dust and the sun, only feeling the sting of the fly and the bite of the ant; and the world seemed dead to him, because so long ago, though his body still lived on, his soul and had cursed God and died.

Through the golden notes of the dancing air and of the quivering sunbeams, whilst high above the lark sang on, there came along the road a girl.

She was bare‐footed and bare‐throated, lithe of movement, and straight and supple, as one who passed her life on the open lands and was abroad in all changes of the weather.

She walked with the free and fearless measure of the country women of Rome or the desert‐born women of Nubia; she had barely entered his sixteenth year; but her bosom and limbs were full and firm, and moulded with almost the luxuriant splendor of maturity; her head was not covered after the fashion of the country, but had a scarlet kerchief wound about, and on it she bore a great flat basket, filled high with fruits and herbs and flowers; a mass of colour and of blossom, through whose leaves and tendrils her dark level brows and her great eyes, blue black as a tempestuous night, looked out, set straight against the sun.

She came on, treading down the dust with her long and slender feet, that were such feet as a sculptor would give his Cleopatra or his Phryne. Her face was grave, shadowed, even fierce; and her mouth, though scarlet as a berry and full and curled, had its lips pressed close to one another, page: 66 like the lips of one who has long kept silence, and may keep it—until death.

As she saw the old man her eyes changed and lightened with a smile which for the moment banished all the gloom and savage patience from her eyes, and made them mellow and lustrous as a southern sun.

She paused before him, and spoke, showing her beautiful white teeth, small and even, like rows of cowrie shells.

“You are well, Marcellin?”

The old man started, and looked up with a certain gladness on his own keen visage, which had lost all expression save such as an intense and absorbed retrospection will lend.

“Fool!” he made answer, harshly yet not unkindly. “When will you know that so long as an old man lives so long it cannot be ‘well’ with him?”

“Need one be a man, or old, to answer so?”

She spoke in the accent and the language of the province, but with a voice rich and pure and cold; not the voice of the north, or of any peasantry. She put her basket down from off her head, and leaned against the trunk of the poplar beside him, crossing her arms upon her bare chest.

“To the young everything is possible; to the old nothing,” he said curtly.

Her eyes gleamed with a fierce thirsty longing; she made him no reply.

He broke off half his dry bread and tendered it to her. She shook her head and motioned it away; yet she was as hungered as any hawk that has hunted all through the night and the woods, and has killed nothing. The growing life, the superb strength, the lofty stature of her made her need constant nourishment, as young trees need it; and she was fed as scantily as a blind beggar’s dog, and less willingly than a galley slave.

The kindly air had fed her richly, strongly, continually; that was all.

“Possible!” she said slowly, after awhile. “What is possible? I do not understand.”

The old man, Marcellin, smiled grimly.

“You see that lark? It soars there, and sings there. It is possible that a fowler may hide in the grasses; it is possible that it may be shot as it sings; it is possible that page: 67 it may have the honour to die in agony to grace a rich man’s table. You see?”

She mused a moment; her brain was rapid in intuitive perception, but barren of all culture; it took her many moments to follow the filmy track of a metaphorical utterance. But by degrees she saw his meaning, and the shadow settled over her face again.

“The possible, then, is only—the worse?” she said slowly.

The old man smiled still grimly.

“Nay; our friends the priests say there is a ‘possible’ which will give—one day—the fowler who kills the lark the wings of the lark, and the lark’s power to sing Laus Deo in heaven. I do not say—they do.”

“The priests!”

All the scorn of which her curved lips were capable curled on them, and a deep hate gathered in her eyes—a hate that was unfathomable and mute.

“Then there is no ‘possible’ for me,” she said bitterly, “if so be that priests hold the gifts of it?”

Marcellin looked up at her from under his bushy white eyebrows; a glance fleet and keen as the gleam of blue steel.

“Yes, there is,” he said curtly. “You are a woman child, and have beauty: the devil will give you one.”

“Always the devil!” she muttered. There was impatience in her echo of the words, and yet there was an awe also as of one who uses a name that is mighty and full of majesty, although familiar.

“Always the devil!” repeated Marcellin. “For the world is always of men.”

His meaning this time lay too deep for her, and passed her; she stood leaning against the poplar, with her head bent and her form motionless in the sunlight like a statue of bronze.

“If men be devils they are my brethren,” she said suddenly: “why do they then so hate me?”

The old man stroked his beard.

“Because Fraternity is Hate. Cain said so; but God would not believe him.”

She mused over the saying; silent still.

The lark dropped down from heaven, suddenly falling page: 68 through the air, mute. It had been struck by a sparrow‐hawk, which flashed black against the azure of the skies and the white haze of the atmosphere; and which flew down in the track of the lark and seized it ere it gained the shelter of the grass and bore it away within his talons.

Marcellin pointed to it with his pipe‐stem.

“You see there are many forms of the ‘possible’”—

“When it means Death,” she added.

The old man took his pipe back and smoked.

“Of‐course—Death is the key‐note of creation.”

Again she did not comprehend; a puzzled pain clouded the lustre of her eyes.

“But the lark praised God—why should it be so dealt with?”

Marcellin smiled grimly.

“Abel was praising God; but that did not turn aside the steel.”

She was silent yet again; he had told her that old story of the sons born of Eve, and the one whom, hearing it, she had understood and pitied had been Cain.

At that moment, through the roadway that wound across the meadows and through the corn lands and the trees, there came in sight a gleam of scarlet that was not from the poppies, a flash of silver that was not from the river, a column of smoke that was not from the weeds that burned on the hillside.

There came a cloud, with a melodious murmur softly rising from it: a cloud that moved between the high flowering hedges, the tall amber wheat, the slender poplars, and the fruitful orchards; a cloud that grew larger and clearer as it drew more near to them, and left the green water meadows and winding field paths for the great high road.

It was a procession of the Church.

It drew closer and closer by slow imperceptible degrees, until it approached them; the old man sat upright, not taking his cap from his head nor his pipe from his mouth; the young girl cease to lean for rest against the tree, and stood with her arms crossed on her breast.

The Church passed them; the great gilt crucifix held aloft, the scarlet and the white of the robes catch‐ page: 69 ing the sunlight; the silver chains and silver censers gleaming; the fresh young voices of the singing children cleaving the air like a rush of wind; the dark shorn faces of the priests bowed over open books, the tender sound of the bells ringing across the low deep monotony of prayer.

The Church passed them; the dust of the parched road rose up in a choking mass; the heavy mist of the incense hung darkly on the sunlit air; the tramp of the many feet startled the birds from their rest, and pierced through the noonday silence.

It passed them, and left them behind it; but the fresh leaves were choked and whitened; the birds were fluttered and affrightened; the old man coughed, the girl strove to brush the dust motes from her smarting eyelids.

“That is the Church!” said the stone‐breaker, with a smile. “Dust—terror—a choked voice—and blinded eyes.”

Now she understood; and her beautiful curled lips laughed mutely.

The old man rammed some more tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.

“That is the Church!” he said. “To burn incense and pray for rain, and to fell the forests that were the rainmakers.”

The procession passed away out of sight, going along the highway and winding by the course of the river, calling to the bright blue heavens for rain; whilst the little bells rang and the incense curled and the priest prayed themselves hoarse, and the peasants toiled footsore, and the eager steps of the choral children trod the tiny gnat dead in the grasses and the bright butterfly dead in the dust.

The priests had cast a severer look from out their down‐dropped eyelids; the children had huddled together, with their voices faltering a little; and the boy choristers had shot out their lips in gestures of defiance and opprobrium as they had passed these twain beneath the wayside trees. For the two were both outcasts.

“Didst thou see the man that killed the king?” whispered to another one fair and curly‐headed baby, who was holding in the sun her little, white, silver‐fringed banner, and catching the rise and fall of the sonorous chaunt as well as she could with her little, lisping tones.

“Didst thou see the daughter of the devil?” muttered to page: 70 another a handsome golden brown boy, who had left his herd untended in the meadow to don his scarlet robes and swing about the censer of his village chapel.

And they all sang louder, and tossed more incense on high, and marched more closely together under the rays of the gleaming crucifix as they went; feeling that they had been beneath the shadow of the powers of darkness, and that they were purer and holier and more exalted, because they had thus passed by in scorn what was accursed with psalms on their lips, with the cross as their symbol.

So they went their way through the peaceful country with a glory of sunbeams about them—through the corn, past the orchards, by the river, into the heart of the old brown, quiet town, and about the foot of the great cathedral, where they kneeled down int he dust and prayed, then rose and sang the “Angelus.”

Then, the tall dark‐visaged priest, who had led them all thither under the standard of the golden crucifix, lifted his voice alone and implored God, and exhorted man; implored for rain and all the blessings of harvest, exhorted to patience and the imitation of God.

The people were moved and saddened, and listened, smiting their breasts; and after a while rising from their knees, many of them in tears, dispersed and went their ways, muttering to one another:—“We have had no such harvests as those of old since the men that slew a saint came to dwell here;” and answering to one another:—“We had never such droughts as these in the sweet cool weather of old, before the offspring of hell was amongst us.”

For the priests had not said to them, “Lo! your mercy is parched as the earth, and your hearts as the heavens are brazen.”