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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 102


MEANWHILE Claudis Flamma cut the lilies for the cathedral altars, muttering many holy prayers as he gathered the flowers of Mary.

When the white lily sheaves had been borne away, kept fresh in wet moss, by the young chorister who had been sent for them, the miller turned to her.

“Where is the money?”

She, standing beside the buried bird, undid the leathern thong about her waist, opened the pouch, and counted out the coins, one by one, on the flat stone of a water tank amongst the lilies and the ivy.

There were a few silver pieces of slight value and some dozens of copper ones. The fruit had been left at various stalls and houses in small portions, for it was the custom to supply it fresh each day.

He caught them up with avidity, bit and tested each, counted them again and again, and yet again; after the third enumeration he turned sharply on her.

“There are two pieces too little: what have you done with them?”

page: 103

“There are two sous short,” she answered him curtly. “Twelve of the figs for the tanner Florian were rotten.”

“Rotten!—they were but over ripe.”

“It is the same thing.”

“You dare to answer me?—animal! I say they had only tasted a little too much of the sun. It only made them the sweeter.”

“They were rotten.”

“They were not. You dare to speak! If they had been rotten, they lay under the others; he could not have seen—”

“I saw.”

“You saw! Who are you?—a beggar—a beast—a foul offspring of sin. You dared to show them to him, I will warrant?”

“I showed him that they were not good.”

“And gave him back the two sous?”

“I took seven sous for what were good. I took nothing for the rotten ones.”

“Wretch! you dare to tell me that!”

A smile careless and sarcastic curled her mouth; her eyes looked at him with all their boldest, fiercest lustre.

“I never steal—not even from you, good Flamma.”

“You have stolen now!” he shrieked, his thin and feeble voice rising in fury at his lost coins and his discovered treachery. “It is a lie that the figs were rotten; it is a lie that you took but seven sous. You stole the two sous to buy you bread and honey in the streets, or to get a drink at the wine shops. I know you; I know you; it is a devil’s device to please your gluttonous appetite. The figs rotten!—not so rotten as is your soul would they be though they were black as night and though they stank as river mud! Go back to Denis Florian and bring me the two sous, or I will thrash you as a thief.”

She laughed a hard, scornful, reckless laughter.

“You can thrash me; you cannot make me a thief.”

“You will not go back to Florian?”

“I will not ask him to pay for what was bad.”

“You will not confess that you stole the money?”

“I should lie if I did.”

“Then strip.”

She set her teeth in silence; and without a moment’s page: 104 hesitation unloosened the woollen sash knotted round her waist, and pushed down the coarse linen tunic from about her throat.

The white folds fell from off the perfect curves of her brown arms, and left bare her shining shoulders, beautiful as any sculptured Psyche’s.

She was not conscious of degradation in her punishment; she had been bidden to bow her head and endure the lash from the earliest years she could remember. According to the only creed she knew, silence and fortitude and strength were the greatest of all virtues.

She stood now in the cross lights among the lilies as she had stood when a little child, erect, unquailing, and ready to suffer; insensible of humiliation because unconscious of sin; and so tutored by severity and exposure that she had as yet none of the shy shame and the fugitive shrinking of her sex. She had only the boldness to bear, the courage to be silent, which she had had when she had stood amongst the same tall lilies, in the same summer radiance, in the years of her helpless infancy.

She uncovered herself to the lash as a brave hound crouches to it; not from inborn cowardice, but simply from the habit of obedience and of endurance.

He had used her as the Greeks the Helots; he always beat her, when she was at fault, to teach her to be faultless; and, when without offence, beat her to remind her that she was the offspring of humiliation, and a slave.

He took, as he had taken in an earlier time, a thick rope which lay coiled upon the turf ready for the binding of some straying boughs; and struck her with it, slowly. His arm had lost somewhat of its strength, and his power was unequal to his will. Still rage for the loss of his copper pieces, and the sense that she had discovered the fraudulent intention of his small knavery, lent force to his feebleness; as the scourge whistled through the air and descended on her shoulders it left bruised, swollen marks to stamp its passage, and curling, adder‐like, bit and drew blood.

Yet to the end she stood mute and motionless, as she had stood in her childhood; not a nerve quivered, not a limb flinched: the colour rushed over her bent face and her bare chest, but she never made a movement; she never gave a sound.

page: 105

When his arm dropped from sheer exhaustion, she still said not one word; she drew tight once more the sash about her waist, and fastened afresh the linen of her bodice.

The bruised and wounded flesh smarted and ached and throbbed; but she was used to such pain, and bore it as their wounds were borne by the women of the Spartan games.

“Your two sous have brought you bitterness,” he muttered with a smile. “You will scarce find my fruit rotten again in haste. There are bread and beans within; go get a meal; I want the mule to take flour to Barbizène.”

She did not go within to eat; the bruises and the burning of her skin made her feel sick and weak. She went away and cast herself at full length in the shade of the long grasses of the orchard; resting her chin upon her hands, cooling her aching breast against the soft damp moss; thinking, thinking, thinking, of what she hardly knew, except, indeed, that she wished that she were dead, like the bird she had covered with the leaves.

He did not leave her long to even so much peace as this; his shrill voice soon called her from her rest; he bade her get ready the mule and go.

She obeyed.

The animal was saddled with his wooden pack; as many sacks as he could carry were piled upon the framework; she put her hand upon his bridle, and set out to walk to Barbizène which was two leagues away.

“Work is the only thing to drive the devil that begat her out of her,” muttered the miller, as he watched the old mule pace down the narrow, tree‐shadowed road that led across the fields: and he believed that he did rightly in this treatment of her.

It gratified the sharp hard cruelty of temper in him, indeed, but he did not think that in such self‐indulgence he ever erred. He was a bitter, cunning, miserly old man, whose solitary tenderness of feeling and honesty of pride had been rooted out for ever when he had learned the dishonour of the woman whom he had deemed a saint. In the ten years of time which had passed since first the little brown large‐eyed child had been sent to seek asylum with page: 106 him, he had grown harder and keener and more severe with each day that rose.

Her presence was abhorrent to him, though he kept her, partly from a savage sense of duty, partly from the persuasion that she had the power in her to make the strongest and the cheapest slave he had ever owned. For the rest, he sincerely and devoutly believed that the devil, in some witchery of human guise, had polluted his daughter’s body and soul, and that it was by the foul fiend and by no earthly lover that she had conceived and borne the creature who now abode with him.

Perhaps, also, as was but natural, he sometime felt more furious against this offspring of hell because ever and again some gleam of fantastic inborn honour, some strange savage instinct of honesty, would awake in her and oppose him, and make him ashamed of those small and secret sins of chicanery wherein his soul delighted, and for which he compounded with his gods.

He had left her mind a blank, because he thought the body laboured hardest when the brain was still asleep, which is true; she could not read; she could not write; she knew absolutely nothing.

Yet there was a soul awake in her; there were innumerable thoughts and dreams brooding in her fathomless eyes; there was a desire in her, fierce and unslaked, for some other life than this life of the packhorse and of the day labourer which alone she knew.

He had done his best to degrade and to brutalise her, and in much he had succeeded; but he had not succeeded wholly. There was a liberty in her that escaped his thraldom; there was a soul in her that resisted the deadening influence of her existence.

She had none of the shame of her sex; she had none of the timorous instincts of womanhood. She had a savage stubborn courage, and she was insensible of the daily outrages of her life. She would strip bare to his word obediently, feeling only that it would be feeble and worthless to dread the pain of the lash. She would bathe in the woodland pool, remembering no more that she might be watched by human eyes than does the young tigress that has never beheld the face of man.

In all this she was brutalised and degraded by her tyrant’s page: 107 bondage: in other things she was far higher than he, and escaped him.

Stupefied as her mind might be by the exhaustion of severe physical labour, it had still irony and it had still imagination; and under the hottest heats of temptation there were two things which by sheer instinct she resisted, and resisted so that neither of them had ever been forced on her—they were falsehood and fear.

“It is the infamous strength of the devil!” said Claudis Flamma, when he found that he could not force her to deviate from the truth.

The world says the same of those who will not feed it with lies.