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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 156


AS the night fell, Folle‐Farine, alone, steered herself down the water through the heart of the town, where the buildings were oldest, and where on either side there loomed through the dusk, carved on the black timbers, strange masks of satyr and of faun, of dragon and of griffin, of fiend and of martyr.

She sat in the clumsy empty market‐boat, guiding the tiller rope with her foot.

The sea flowing in stormily upon the coast sent the tide of the river inland with a swift impetuous current, to which its sluggish depths were seldom stirred. The oars rested unused in the bottom of the boat; she glided down the stream without exertion of her own, quietly, easily, dreamily.

She had come from a long day’s work, lading and unlading timber and grain for her taskmaster, and his fellow farmers, at the river wharf at the back of the town, where the little sea‐trawlers and traders, with their fresh salt smell and their brown sails crisp from fierce sea winds, gathered for traffic with the corn barges and the egg‐boats of the land.

Her day’s labour was done, and she was repaid for it by the free effortless backward passage home through the shadows of the water‐streets; where in the overhanging buildings, ever and anon, some lantern swinging on a cord from side to side, or some open casement arched above a gallery, showed the dark sad wistful face of some old creature kneeling in prayer before a crucifix, or the gold ear‐rings of some laughing girl leaning down with the first frail violets of the year fragrant in her bodice.

The cold night had brought the glow of wood‐fires in many of the dwellings of that poor and picturesque quarter; and showed many a homely interior through the panes of the oriel and lancet windows, over which brooded sculptured figures seraph‐winged, or carven forms helmeted and leaning on their swords.

In one of them there was a group of young men and page: 157 maidens gathered round the wood nut‐burning, the lovers seeking each other’s kiss as the kernels broke the shells; in another, some rosy curly children played at soldiers with the cuirass and sabre which their grandsire had won in the army of the empire; in another, before a quaint oval old‐fashioned glass, a young girl all alone made trial of her wedding wreath upon her fair forehead, and smiled back on her own image with a little joyous laugh that ended in a sob; in another, a young bearded workman carved ivory beside his hearth, whilst his old mother sat knitting in a high oak chair; in another, a sister of charity, with a fair Madonna’s face, bent above a little pot of home‐bred snowdrops, with her tears dropping on the white heads of the flowers, whilst the sick man, of whom she had charge, slept and left her a brief space for her own memories, her own pangs, her own sickness, which was only of the heart—only—and therefore hopeless.

All these Folle‐Farine saw, going onward in the boat on the gloom of the water below.

She did not envy them; she rather, with her hatred of them, scorned them. She had been freeborn, though now she was a slave; the pleasures of the home and hearth she envied no more that she envied the imprisoned bird its seed and water, its mate and song, within the close cage bars.

Yet they had a sort of fascination for her. She wondered how they felt, these people who smiled and span, and ate and drank, and sorrowed and enjoyed, and were in health and disease, at feast and at funeral, always together, always bound in one bond of a common humanity; these people, whose God on the cross never answered them; who were poor, she knew; who toiled early and late; who were heavily taxed; who fared hardly and scantily; yet who for the main part contrived to be mirthful and content, and to find some sunshine in their darkened hours, and to cling to one another, and in a way be glad.

Just above her was the corner window of a very ancient house, encrusted with blazonries and carvings. It had been a prince‐bishop’s palace; it was now the shared shelter of half a score of lace weavers and of ivory workers, each family in their chamber, like a bee in its cell.

As the boat floated under one of the casements, she saw page: 158 that it stood open; there was a china cup filled with house‐born primroses on the broad sill; there was an antique illuminated Book of Hours lying open beside the flowers; there was a strong fire‐light shining from within; there was an old woman asleep and smiling in her dreams beside the hearth; by the open book was a girl, leaning out into the chill damp night, and looking down the street as though in search for some expected and thrice‐welcome guest.

She was fair to look at, with dark hair twisted under her towering white cap, and a peach‐like cheek and throat, and her arms folded against her blue ’kerchief crossed upon her chest.

Into the chamber, unseen by her, a young man stole across the shadows, and came unheard behind her and bent his head to hers, and kissed her ere she knew that he was there. She started with a little happy cry and pushed him away with pretty provocation; he drew her into his arms and into the chamber; he shut‐to the lattice, and left only a dusky reflection from within shining through the panes made dark by age and dust.

Folle‐Farine had watched them; as the window closed her head dropped, she was stirred with a mournful, passionate, contemptuous wonder; what was this love that was about her everywhere, and yet with which she had no share? She only thought of it with haughtiest scorn; and yet—

There had come a great darkness on the river, a surly roughness in the wind; the shutters were now closed in many of the houses of the water‐street, and their long black shadows fell across the depth that severed them, and met and blended in the twilight.

The close of this day was stormy; the wind blew the river swiftly; the heavy raw mists were setting in from the sea as the night descended. She did not heed these; she liked the wild weather best; she loved the rush of a chill wind amongst her hair, and the moisture of blown spray upon her face; she loved the manifold phantasies of the clouds, and the melodies of the blast coming over the sands and the rushes. She loved the swirl and rage of the angry water, and the solitude that closed in round her with the darkness.

The boat passed onward through the now silent town; only in one other place the light glowed through the un‐ page: 159 shuttered lattices that were ruddy and emblematic with the paintings of the Renaissance. It was the window of the gardener’s wife.

At that season there could bloom neither saxifrage nor carnation; but some green‐leaved winter shrub with rosy laden berries had replaced them, and made a shining frame all round the painted panes.

The fair woman was within; her delicate head rose out of the brown shadows round, with a lamp burning above it and a little oval mirror before. Into the mirror she was gazing with a smile, whilst with both hands about her throat she clasped some strings of polished shells brought to her from the sea.

“How white and how warm and how glad she is!” thought Folle‐Farine, looking upward; and she rowed in the gloom through the sluggish water with envy at her heart.

She was growing harder, wilder, worse, with every day; more and more like some dumb fierce forest beast, that flees from every step and hates the sound of every voice.

Since the night that they had pricked her for a witch, the people had been more cruel to her than ever; they cast bitter names at her as she went by; they hissed and hooted her as she took her mule through their villages, or passed them on the road with her back bent under some load of faggots, or of winter food; once or twice they stoned her, and chance alone had saved her from injury.

For it was an article of faith in all the hamlets round that she had killed old Manon Dax. The Flandrins said so, and they were good pious people who would not lie. Every dusky evening when the peasantry, through the doors of their cabins, saw the gleam of her bright red girdle and the flash of her hawk’s eyes, where she plodded on through the mist on her tyrant’s errands, they crossed themselves and told each other for the hundredth time the tale of her iniquities over their pan of smoking chestnuts.

It had hardened her tenfold; it had made her brood on sullen dreams of a desperate vengeance.

Marcellin, too, was gone; his body had been eaten by the quicklime in the common ditch, and there was not even a voice so stern as his to bid her a good morrow. He had been a harsh man, of dark repute and bitter tongue; but in page: 160 his way he had loved her; in his way, with the eloquence that had remained to him, and by the strange stories that he had told her of that wondrous time wherein his youth had passed, when men had been as gods and giants, and women either horrible as the Medusa or sublime as the Iphigenia, he had done something to awaken her mind; to arouse her hopes; to lift her up from the torpor of toil, the lusts of hatred, the ruinous apathy of despair. But he was dead; and she was alone; and was abandoned utterly to herself.

She mourned for him with a passionate pain that was all the more despairing, because no sound of it could ever pass her lips to any creature.

To and fro continually she went by the road on which he had died alone; by the heap of broken stones, by the wooden crucifix, by the high hedge and the cornlands beyond. Every time she went the blood beat in her brain, the tears swelled in her throat; she hated with a hatred that consumed her, and was ready to ripen into any deadly deed, the people who had shunned him in his life, and in his death derided and insulted him, and given him such burial as they gave the rotten carcass of some noxious beast.

Her heart was ripe for any evil that should have given her vengeance; a dull cold sense of utter desolation and isolation was always on her; the injustice of the people began to turn her blood to gall, her courage into cruelty; there began to come upon her the look of those who brood upon a crime.

It was, in truth, but the despairing desire to live that stirred within her; to know, to feel, to roam, to enjoy, to suffer still, if need be; but to suffer something else than the endless toil of the field‐ox and tow‐horse, something else than the unavenged blow that pays the ass and the dog for their services.

The desire to be free grew upon her with all the force and fury inherited from her father’s tameless and ever‐wandering race; if a crime could have made her free she would have seized it.

She was in the prison of a narrow and hated fate; and from it she looked out on the desert of an endless hate, which stretched around her without one blossom of love, one well‐spring of charity, rising in its deathlike waste.

The dreamy imaginations, the fantastic pictures that had page: 161 been so strong in her in her early years, were still there, though distorted by ignorance and inflamed by despair. Though, in her first poignant grief for him, she had envied Marcellin his hard‐won rest, his grave in the public ditch of the town, it was not in her to desire to die. She was too young, too strong, too restless, too impatient, and her blood of the desert and the forest was too hot.

What she wanted was to live. Live as the great moor bird did that she had seen float one day over these pale, pure, blue skies, with its mighty wings outstretched in the calm grey weather; which came none knew whence, and which went none knew whither; which poised silent and stirless against the clouds; then called with a sweet wild love‐note to its mate, and waited for him as he sailed in from the misty shadows where the sea lay; and with him rose yet higher and higher in the air; and passed westward, cleaving the fields of light, and so vanished;—a queen of the wind, a daughter of the sun; a creature of freedom, of victory, of tireless movement, and of boundless space, a thing of heaven and liberty.

* * * * *

The evening became night; a night rough and cold almost as winter.

There was no boat but hers upon the river, which ran high and strong. She left the lights of the town behind her, and came into the darkness of the country. Now and then the moon shone a moment through the storm wrack, here and there a torch glimmered, borne by some wayfarer over a bridge.

There was no other light.

The bells of the cathedral chiming a miserere, sounded full of woe behind her in the still sad air.

There stood but one building between her and her home, a square strong tower built upon the edge of the stream, of which the peasants told many tales of horror. It was of ancient date, spacious, and very strong. Its upper chambers were used as a granary by the farm‐people who owned it; the vaulted hall was left unused by them, partly because the river had been known to rise high enough to flood the floor; partly because legend had bequeathed to it a ghastly repute of spirits of murdered men who haunted it.

No man or woman in all the country round dared venture page: 162 to it after nightfall; it was all that the stoutest would do to fetch and carry grain there at broad day; and the peasant who, being belated, rowed his market‐boat past it when the moon was high, moved his oar with one trembling hand, and with the other crossed himself unceasingly.

To Folle‐Farine it bore no such terror.

The unconscious pantheism breathed into her earliest thoughts, with the teachings of Phratos, made her see a nameless mystical and always wondrous beauty in every blade of grass that fed on the dew, and with the light, rejoiced; in every bare brown stone that flashed to gold in bright brook waters, under a tuft of weed; in every hillside stream that leaping and laughing sparkled in the sun; in every wind that wailing went over the sickness of the weary world.

For such a temper, no shape of the day or the night, no mystery of life or of death can have terror; it can dread nothing, because every created thing has in it a divine life and an eternal mystery.

As she and the boat passed out into the loneliness of the country, with fitful moon gleams to light its passage, the weather and the stream grew wilder yet.

There were on both sides strips of the silvery inland sands, beds of tall reeds, and the straight stems of poplars, ghost‐like in the gloom. The tide rushed faster; the winds blew more strongly from the north; the boat rocked, and now and then was washed with water, till its edges were submerged.

She stood up in it, and gave her strength to its guidance; it was all that she could do to keep its course straight, and steer it so that it should not grate upon the sand, nor be blown into the tangles of the river reeds. For herself she had no care, she could swim like any cygnet; and, for her own sport, had spent hours in water at all seasons. But she knew that to Claudis Flamma the boat was an honoured treasure, since to replace it would have cost him many a hard‐earned and well loved piece of money.

As she stood thus upright in the little tossing vessel, against the darkness and the winds, she passed the solitary building; it had been placed so low down against the shore that its front walls, strong of hewn stone, and deep bedded in the soil, were half submerged in the dense growth of page: 163 the reeds and of the willowy osiers which grew up and brushed the great arched windows of its haunted hall. The lower half of one of the seven latticed windows had been blown wide open; a broad square casement, braced with iron bars, looking out upon the river, and lighted by a sickly glimmer of the moon.

Her boat was swayed close against the wall, in a sudden lurch, caused by a fiercer gust of wind and higher wave of the strong tide; the rushes entangled it; it grounded on the sand; there was no chance, she knew, of setting it afloat again without her leaving it to gain a footing on the sand, and use her force to push it off into the current.

She leaped out without a moment’s thought amongst the rushes, with her kirtle girt up close above her knees. She sank to her ankles in the sand, and stood to her waist in the water.

But she was almost as light and sure of foot as a moor‐gull, when it lights upon the treacherous mosses of a bog; and standing on the soaked and shelving bank, she thrust herself with all her might against her boat, dislodged it, and pushed it out once more afloat.

She was about to wade to it and spring into it, before the stream had time to move it farther out, when an owl flew from the open window behind her. Unconsciously she turned her head to look whence the bird had come.

She saw the wide dark square of the opened casement; the gleam of a lamp within the cavern‐like vastness of the vaulted hall. Instinctively she paused, drew closer, and forgot the boat.

The stone sills of the seven windows were level with the topmost sprays of the tall reeds an the willowy underwood; they were, therefore, level with herself. She saw straight in; saw, so far as the pale uncertain fusion of moon and lamp rays showed them, the height and width of this legend‐haunted place; vaulted and pillared with timber and with stone; dim and lonely as a cathedral crypt, and with the night‐birds flying to and fro in it, as in a ruin, seeking their nests in its rafters and in the capitals of its columns.

No fear, but a great awe fell upon her. She let the boat drift on its way unheeded; and stood there at gaze like a forest doe.

She had passed this grain tower with every day or night page: 164 that she had gone down the river upon the errands of her taskmaster; but she had never looked within it once, holding the peasants’ stories and terrors in the cold scorn of an intrepid courage.

Now, when she looked, she for the first time believed—believed that the dead lived and gathered there.

White, shadowy, countless shapes loomed through the gloom, all motionless, all noiseless, all beautiful, with the serene yet terrible loveliness of death.

In their midst burned a lamp; as the light burns night and day in the tombs of the kings of the east.

Her colour paled, her breath came and went, her body trembled like a leaf; yet she was not afraid. An ecstasy of surprise and faith smote the dull misery of her life. She saw at last another world than the world of toil in which she had laboured without sigh and without hope, as the blinded ox laboured in the brick‐field, treading his endless circles in the endless dark, and only told that it was day by blows.

She had no fear of them—these, whom she deemed the dwellers of the lands beyond the sun, could not be more cruel to her than had been the sons of men. She yearned to them, longed for them; wondered with rapture and with awe if these were the messengers of her father’s kingdom; if these would have mercy on her, and take her with them to their immortal homes—whether of heaven or of hell, what mattered it?

It was enough to her that it would not be of earth.

She raised herself upon the ledge above the rushes, poised herself lightly as a bird, and with deft soundless feet dropped safely on the floor within, and stood in the midst of that enchanted world. Stood motionless, gazing upwards with rapt eyes, and daring barely to draw breath with any audible sigh, lest she should rouse them, and be driven from their presence. The flame of the lamp, and the moonlight, reflected back from the foam of the risen waters, shed a strange, pallid, shadowy light on all the forms around her.

“They are the dead, surely,” she thought, as she stood amongst them; and she stayed there with her arms folded on her breast to still its beating, lest any sound should anger them and betray her; a thing lower than the dust—a mortal amidst this great immortal host.

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The mists and the shadows between her eyes and them parted them as with a sea of dim and subtle vapour, through which they looked white and implacable as a summer cloud, when it seems to lean and touch the edge of the world in a grey, quiet dawn.

They were but the creations of an artist’s classic dreams, but to her they seemed to thrill, to move, to sigh, to gaze on her; to her, they seemed to live with that life of the air, of the winds, of the stars, of silence and solitude, and all the nameless liberties of death, of which she dreamed when, shunned, and cursed, and hungered, she looked up to the skies at night from a sleepless bed.

They were indeed the dead: the dead of that fair time when all the earth was young, and men communed with their deities, and loved them, and were not afraid. When their gods were with them in their daily lives; and when in every breeze that curled the sea, in every cloud that darkened in the west, in every water‐course that leaped and sparkled in the sacred cedar groves, in every bee‐sucked blossom of wild thyme that grew purple by the marble temple steps, the breath and the glance of the gods were felt, the footfall and the voice of the gods were heard.

They were indeed the dead: the dead who—dying earliest, whilst yet the earth was young enough to sorrow for its heroic lives, to embalm them, to remember them, and to count them worthy of lament—perished in their bodies, but lived for ever immortal in the traditions of the world.

From every space of the sombre chamber some one of these gazed on her through the mist.

Here the silver dove of Argos winged her way through the iron jaws of the dark sea‐gates; here the white Io wandered, in exile and unresting, for ever scourged on by the sting in her flesh, as a man by the genius in him.

Here the glad god whom all the woodlands loved, played in the moonlight, on his reeds, to the young stags that couched at his feet in golden beds of daffodils and asphodel. Here over a darkened land the great Demeter moved, bereaved and childless, bidding the vine be barren, and the fig trees stay fruitless, and the seed of the sown furrows lie strengthless to multiply and fill the sickles with the ripe increase.

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Here the women of Thebes danced upon Cithæron in the mad moonless nights, under the cedars, with loose hair on the wind, and bosoms that heaved and brake through their girdles of fawnskin. Here at this labour, in Pheræ, the sun‐god toiled as a slave; the highest wrought as the lowest; while wise Hermes stood by and made mirth of the kingship that had bartered the rod of dominion for the mere music which empty air could make in a hollow reed.

Here, too, the brother gods stood, Hypnos and Oneiros, and Thanatos; their bowed heads crowned with the poppy and moonwort, the flowering fern, and the amaranth, and, pressed to their lips, a white rose, in the old sweet symbol of silence; fashioned in the same likeness, with the same winged feet which yet fall so softly, that no human ears hear their coming; the gods that most of all have pity on men, the gods of the Night and of the Grave.

These she saw; not plainly, but through the wavering shadows, and the halo of the vapours which floated, dense and silvery as smoke, in from the misty river.

Their lips were dumb, and for her they had no name nor story, and yet they spoke to her with familiar voices. She knew them, she knew that they were gods, and yet were dead; and in the eyes of the forest‐god, who piped upon his reeds, she saw the eyes of Phratos look on her with their tender laughter and their unforgotten love.

Just so had he looked so long ago—so long!—in the deep woods at moonrise, when he had played to the bounding fawns, to the leaping waters, to the listening trees, to the sleeping flowers.

They had called him an outcast—and lo!—she found him a god.

She sank on her knees, and buried her face in her hands, and wept—wept with grief for the living lost for ever, wept with joy that the dead for ever lived.

Tears had rarely sprung to her proud rebellious eyes; she deemed them human things, things of weakness and of shame; she had thrust them back and bitten her lips till the blood came, in a thousand hours of pain, rather than that men should be able to see them and exult. The passion had its way for once, and spent itself, and passed; she rose trembling and pale; with her eyes wet and dimmed in page: 167 lustre, like stars that shine through rain. She looked around her fearfully.

She thought that the gods might rise in wrath against her, even as mortals did, for daring to be weary of her life.

As she rose, she saw for the first time before the cold hearth the body of a man.

It was stretched straightly out on the stone floor; the chest was bare; upon the breast the right hand was clenched close and hard; the limbs were in profound repose; the head was lit by the white glimmer from the moon; the face was calm and colourless, and full of sadness.

In the dim strange light it looked white as marble, colossal as a statue, in that passionless rest, that dread repose.

Instinctively she drew nearer to him; breathless and allured she bent forward and looked closer on his face.

He was a god, like all the rest, she thought; but dead—not as they were dead, with eyes that still rejoiced in the light of cloudless suns, and with lips that still smiled with a serene benignity and an eternal love,—but dead, as mortals die, without hope, without release, with their breath frozen on their tired lips, and bound on their hearts eternally the burden of their sin and woe.

She leaned down close by his side, and looked on him—sorrowful, because, he alone of all the gods was stricken there, and he alone had the shadow of mortality upon him.

Looking thus she saw that his hands were clenched upon his chest, as though their latest effort had been to tear the bones asunder, and wrench out a heart that ached beneath them; she saw that this was not a divine, but a human form,—dead indeed as the rest were, but dead by a man’s death of assassination, or disease, or suicide, or what men love to call the “act of heaven,” whereby they mean the self‐sown fruits of their own faults and follies.

Had the gods slain him—being a mortal—for his entrance there?

Marcellin in legends had told of her of such things.

He was human; with a human beauty; which yet white was cold and golden, full of serenity and sadness, was like the sun‐god’s yonder, and very strange to her whose eyes page: 168 had only rested on the sunburnt, pinched, and rugged faces of the populace around her.

That beauty allured her; she forgot that he had against her the crime of that humanity which she hated. He was too her like some noble forest beast, some splendid bird of prey, struck down by a bolt from some murderous bow, strengthless and senseless, yet majestic even in its fall.

“The gods slew him because he dared to be too like to themselves,” she thought, “else he could not be so beautiful,—he,—only a man, and dead?”

The dreamy intoxication of fancy had deadened her to all sense of time or fact. The exaltation of nerve and brain made all fantastic phantasies seem possible to her as truth.

Herself, she was strong; and desolate no more, since the eyes of the immortals had smiled on her, and bade her welcome there; and she felt an infinite pity on him, inasmuch as with all his likeness to them he yet, having incurred their wrath, lay helpless there as any broken reed.

She bent above him her dark rich face, with a soft compassion on it; she stroked the pale heavy gold of his hair, with fingers brown and lithe, but infinitely gentle; she fanned the cold pain of his forehead, with the breath of her rose‐like mouth; she touched him, stroked him, gazed on him, as she would have caressed and looked on the velvet hide of the stag, the dappled plumage of the hawk, the white leaf of the lily.

A subtle, vague pleasure stole on her, a sharp sweet sorrow moved her,—for he was beautiful, and he was dead.

“If they would give him back his life?” she thought; and she looked for the glad forest god playing on his reed amidst the amber asphodels, he who had the smile and the glance of Phratos. But she could see his face no more.

The wind rose, the moon was hidden, all was dark save the flicker of the flame of the lamp; the storm had broken and the rain fell: she saw nothing now but the bowed head of Thanatos, holding the rose of silence to his lips.

On her ear there seemed to steal a voice from the darkness, saying:

“One life alone can ransom another. Live immortal with us; or for that dead man—perish.”

She bowed her head where she knelt in the darkness; the page: 169 force of an irresistible fate seemed upon her; that sacrifice which is at once the delirium and divinity of her sex had entered into her.

She was so lowly a thing; a creature so loveless and cursed; the gods, if they took her in pity, would soon scorn her as men had scorned; whilst he whom they had slain there—though so still, so white and mute, so powerless,—he looked a king amongst men, though the gods for his daring had killed him.

“Let him live!” she murmured. “As for me,—I am nothing—nothing. Let me die as the Dust dies—what matter?”

The wind blew the flame of the lamp into darkness; the moon still shone through the storm on to the face of Thanatos.

He alone heard. He—the only friend who, come he early or late, fails no living thing at the last.

He alone remained, and waited for her: he, whom alone of all the gods—for this man’s sake—she chose.