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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 149


NIGHT had come; a dark night of earliest spring. The wild day had sobbed itself to sleep after a restless life with fitful breath of storm and many sighs of shuddering breezes.

The sun had sunk, leaving lone tracks of blood‐red light across one‐half the heavens.

There was a sharp crisp coldness as of lingering frost in the gloom and the dulness. Heavy clouds, as yet unbroken, hung over the cathedral and the clustering roofs around it in dark and starless splendour.

Over the great still plains which stretched eastward and southward, black with the furrows of the scarce‐budded corn, the wind blew hard; blowing the river and the many streamlets spreading from it into foam; driving the wintry leaves, which still strewed the earth thickly, hither and thither in legions; breaking boughs that had weathered the winter hurricanes, and scattering the tender blossoms of the snowdrops and the earliest crocuses in all the little moss‐grown garden ways.

The smell of wet grass, of the wood‐born violets, of trees whose new life was waking in their veins, of damp earths turned freshly upwards by the plough, were all blown together by the riotous breezes.

Now and then a light gleamed through the gloom where a little peasant boy lighted home with a torch some old priest on his mule, or a boat went down the waters with a lamp hung at its prow. For it grew dark early, and people used to the river read a threat of flood on its face.

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A dim glow from the west, which was still tinged with the fire of the sunset, fell through a great square window set in a stone building, and striking across the sicklier rays of an oil lamp reached the opposing wall within.

It was a wall of grey stone, dead and lustreless like the wall of a prison‐house, over whose surface a spider as colourless as itself dragged slowly its crooked hairy limbs loaded with the moisture of the place, which was an old tower, of which the country folk told strange tales, where it stood among the rushes on the left bank of the stream.

A man watched the spider as it went.

It crept on its heavy way across the faint crimson reflection from the glow of the sunken sun.

It was fat, well‐nourished, lazy, content; its home of dusky silver hung on high, where its pleasure lay in weaving, clinging, hoarding, breeding. It lived in the dark; it had neither pity nor regret; it troubled itself neither for the death it dealt to nourish itself, nor for the light without, into which it never wandered; it spun and throve and multiplied.

It was an emblem of the man who is wise in his generation; of the man whom Cato the elder deemed divine; of the Majority and the Mediocrity who rule over the earth and enjoy its fruits.

This man knew that was wise; that those who were like to it were wise also; wise with the only wisdom which is honoured of other men.

He had been unwise—always; and therefore he stood watching the sun die, with hunger in his soul, with famine in his body.

For many months he had been half famished, as were the wolves in his own northern mountains in the winter solstice. For seven days he had only been able to crush a crust of hard black bread between his teeth. For twenty hours he had not done even so much as this. The trencher on his tressel was empty; and he had not wherewithal to refill it.

He might have found some to fill it for him no doubt. He lived amidst the poor, and the poor to the poor are good, though they are bad and bitter to the rich. But he did not open either his lips or his hands. He consumed page: 151 his heart in silence; and his vitals preyed in anguish on themselves without his yielding to their torments.

He was a madman; and Cato, who measured the godliness of man by what they gained, would have held him, accursed;—the madness that starves and is silent for an idea is an insanity, scouted by the world and the gods. For it is an insanity unfruitful; except to the future. And for the future who cares,—save these madmen themselves?

He watched the spider as it went.

It could not speak to him as its fellow once spoke in the old Scottish story. To hear as that captive heard, the hearer must have hope, and a kingdom,—if only in dreams.

This man had no hope; he had a kingdom indeed, but it was not of earth; and, in an hour of sheer cruel bodily pain, earth alone has dominion over power and worth.

The spider crawled across the grey wall; across the glow from the vanished sun; across a coil of a dead passion‐vine, that strayed loosed through the floor; across the classic shapes of a great cartoon drawn in chalks upon the dull rugged surface of stone.

Nothing arrested it; nothing retarded it, as nothing hastened it. It moved slowly on; fat, lustreless, indolent, hueless; reached at length its den, and there squatted aloft, loving the darkness; its young swarming around, its prey held in its forceps, its nest cast about.

Through the open casement there came on the rising wind of the storm, in the light of the last lingering sunbeam, a beautiful night‐moth, begotten by some cruel hot‐house heat in the bosom of some frail exiled tropical flower.

It swam in on trembling pinions, and alighted on the golden head of a gathered crocus that lay dying on the stones—a moth that should have been born to no world save that of the summer world of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A shape of Ariel and Oberon; slender, silver, purple, roseate, lustrous‐eyed, and gossamer‐winged.

A creature of woodland waters and blossoming forests; of the yellow chalices of kingcups and the white breasts of river lilies, of moonbeams that strayed through a summer world of shadows, and dewdrops that glistened in the deep folded hearts of roses. A creature to brush the dreaming eyes of a poet, to nestle on the bosom of a young girl page: 152 sleeping: to float earthwards on a fallen star, to slumber on a lotus life.

A creature that amidst the still soft hush of woods and waters still tells, to those who listen, of the world when the world was young.

The moth flew on, and poised on the faded crocus leaves which spread out their pale gold on the level of the grey floor.

It was weary, and its delicate wings drooped; it was storm‐tossed, wind‐beaten, drenched with mist and frozen with the cold; it belonged to the moon, to the dew, to the lilies, to the forget‐me‐nots, and to the night; and it found that the hard grip of winter had seized it whilst yet it had thought that the stars and the summer were with it. It lived before its time,—and it was like the human soul, which being born in the darkness of the world dares to dream of light, and, wandering in vain search of a sun that will never rise, falls and perishes in wretchedness.

It was beautiful exceedingly; with the brilliant tropical beauty of a life that is short‐lived. It rested a moment on the stem of the pale flower, then with its radiant eyes fastened on the point of light which the lamp thrust upward, it flew on high; and, spreading out its transparent wings and floating to the flame, kissed it, quivered once, and died.

There fell among the dust and cinder of the lamp a little heap of shrunken fire‐scorched blackened ashes.

The wind whirled them upward from their rest, and drove them forth into the night to mingle with the storm‐scourged grasses, the pale dead violets, the withered snow‐flowers, with all things frost‐touched and forgotten.

The spider sat aloft, sucking the juices from the fettered flies, teaching its spawn to prey and feed; content in squalor and in plentitude; in sensual sloth, and in the increase of its body and its hoard.

He watched them both: the success of the spider, the death of the moth; trite as a fable; ever repeated as the tides of the sea; the two symbols of humanity; of the life which fattens on greed and gain, and the life which perishes of divine desire.

Then he turned and looked at the cartoons upon the wall; shapes grand and dim, the children of his genius, a genius denied by men.

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His head sank on his chest, his hand tore the shirt away from his breast, which the pangs of a bodily hunger that he scorned, devoured, indeed, but which throbbed with a pain more bitter than that of even this lingering and ignoble death. He had genius in him, and he had to die like a wolf on the Armorican wolds, yonder westward, when the snows of winter hid all offal from its fangs.

It was horrible.

He had to die for want of the crust that beggars gnawed in the kennels of the city; he had to die of the lowest and commonest need of all—the sheer animal need of food.

J’avais quelque chose là!” was, perhaps, the most terrible of all those death‐cries of despair which the guillotine of Thermidor wrung from the lips of the condemned. For it was the despair of the bodily life for the life of the mind which died with it.

When a man clings to life for life’s sake, because it is fair and sweet, and good to the sight and the senses, there may be weakness in his shudder at its threatening loss. But when a man is loth to lose life, although it be hard and joyless and barren of all delights, because this life gives him power to accomplish things greater than he, which yet without him must perish, there is the strength in him, as there is the agony, of Prometheus.

With him it must die also: that deep dim greatness within him which moves him, despite himself; that nameless unspeakable force, which compels him to create and to achieve; that vision by which he beholds worlds beyond him not seen by his fellows.

Weary of life indeed he may be; of life material, and full of subtlety; of passion, of pleasure, of pain; of the kisses that burn, of the laughs that ring hollow, of the honey that so soon turns to gall, of the sickly fatigues and the tired cloyed hunger that are the portion of men upon earth. Weary of these he may be; but still if the gods have breathed on him and made him mad, with the madness that men have called genius, there will be that in him greater than himself, which he knows,—and cannot know without some fierce wrench and pang,—will be numbed and made impotent, and drift away, lost for evermore, into that eternal Night which is all that men behold of death.

It was so with this man now.

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Life was barren of all delight for him, full of privation, of famine, of obscurity, of fruitless travail and of vain desire; yet because he believed that he had it in him to be great, or rather because, with a purer and more impersonal knowledge, he believed that it was within his power to do that which, when done, the world would not willingly let die, it was loathsome to him to perish thus of the sheer lack of food, as any toothless snake would perish in its swamp.

He stood opposite to the great white cartoons on which his soul had spent itself; creations which seemed but vague and ghostly in the shadows of the chamber, but in which he saw, or at the least believed he saw, the title‐deeds of his own heirship to the world’s kingdom of fame.

For himself he cared nothing; but for them—he smiled bitterly as he looked: “They will light some bakehouse fire to pay those that may throw my body in a ditch,” he thought.

And yet the old passion had so much dominion still that he instinctively went nearer to his latest and best‐beloved creations, and took the white chalks up and worked once more by the dull sullen rays of the lamp behind him.

They would be torn down on the morrow and thrust for fuel into some housewife’s kitchen‐stove. What matter?

He loved them; they were his sole garniture and treasure; in them his soul had gathered all its dreams and all its pure delights: so long as his sight lasted he sought to feed it on them; so long as his hand had power he strove to touch, to caress, to enrich them.

Even in such an hour as this, the old sweet trance of Art was upon him.

He was devoured by the deadly fangs of long fast; streaks of living fire seemed to scorch his entrails; his throat and lungs were parched and choked; and ever and again his left hand clenched on the bones of his naked chest as though he could wrench away the throes that gnawed it. He knew that worse than this would follow; he knew that tenfold more torment would await him; that limbs as strong, and muscles as hard, and manhood as vigorous as his, would only yield to such death as this slowly, doggedly, inch by inch, day by day. He knew; and he knew that he could not trust himself to go through that uttermost torture without once lifting his voice to summon page: 155 the shame of release from it. Shame—since release would needs be charity.

He knew full well; he had seen all forms of death; he had studied its throes, and portrayed its horrors. He knew that before dawn—it might be before midnight—this agony would grow so great that it would conquer him; and that to save himself from the cowardice of appeal, the shame besought alms, he would have to use his last powers to drive home a knife hard and sure through his breast‐bone. Yet he stood there, almost forgetting this, scarcely conscious of any other thing than of the passion that ruled him.

Some soft curve in a girl’s bare bosom, some round smooth arm of a sleeping woman, some fringe of leaves against a moonlit sky, some broad‐winged bird sailing through shadows of the air, some full‐orbed lion rising to leap on the nude soft indolently‐folded limbs of a dreaming virgin, palm‐shadowed in the East;—all these he gazed on and touched, and looked again, and changed by some more inward curve or deepened line of his chalk stylus.

All these usurped him; appealed to him; were well beloved and infinitely sad; seemed ever in their whiteness and their loneliness to cry to him,—“Whither dost thou go? Wilt thou leave us alone?”

And as he stood, and thus caressed them with his eyes and touch, and wrestled with the inward torment which grew greater and greater as the night approached, the sudden sickly feebleness of long hunger came upon him; the grave‐like coldness of his fireless chamber slackened and numbed the flowing of his veins; his brain grew dull and all its memory ceased, confused and blotted. He staggered once, wondering dimly and idly as men wonder in delirium, if this indeed were death: then he fell backwards senseless on his hearth.

The last glow of day died off the wall. The wind rose louder, driving in through the open casement a herd of withered leaves. An owl flew by, uttering weary cries against the storm.

On high the spider sat, sucking the vitals of its prey, safe in its filth and darkness; looking down ever on the lifeless body on the hearth, and saying in its heart,—“Thou Fool!”