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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 169

CHAPTER III.

WHEN the trance of her delirious imaginations passed, they left her tranquil, but with the cold of death seeming to pass already from the form she looked on into hers. She was still crouching by his body on the hearth; and knew what she had chosen, and did not repent.

He was dead still;—or so she thought;—she watched him with dim dreaming eyes, watched him as women do who love.

She drew the fair glistening hair through her hands; she touched the closed and blue‐veined eyelids tenderly; she laid her ear against his heart to hearken for the first returning pulses of the life she had brought back to him.

It was no more to her the dead body of a man, unknown, unheeded, a stranger, and because a mortal, of necessity to her a foe. It was a nameless wondrous mystic force and splendour to which she had given back the pulse of page: 170 existence, the light of day; which was no more the gods’, nor any man’s, no more the prey of death, nor the delight of love; but hers—hers—shared only with the greatness she had bought for him.

Even as she looked on him she felt the first faint flutter in his heart; she heard the first faint breath upon his lips.

His eyes unclosed and looked straight at hers, without reason or lustre in them, clouded with a heavy and delirious pain.

“To die—of hunger—like a rat in a trap!” he muttered in his throat, and strove to rise; he fell back, senseless, striking his head upon the stones.

She started; her hands ceased to wander through his hair, and touch his cold lips as she would have touched the cup of a flower; she rose slowly to her feet. She had heard; and the words, so homely and so familiar in the lives of all the poor, pierced the wild faiths and visions of her heated brain, as a ray of the clear daybreak pierces through the purple smoke from altar fires of sacrifice.

The words were so terrible, and yet so trite; they cleft the mists of her dreams as tempered steel cleaves folds of gossamer.

“To die—of hunger!”

She muttered the phrase after him—shaken from her stupor by its gaunt and common truth.

It roused her to the consciousness of all his actual needs.

Her heart rebelled even against her newly found immortal masters, since, being in wrath, they could not strike him swiftly with their vengeance, but had killed him thus with these lingering and most bitter pangs, and had gathered there as to a festival to see him die.

As she stooped above him, she could discern the faint earthy cavernous odour, which comes from the languid lungs and empty chests of one who has long fasted, almost unto death.

She had known that famine odour many a time ere then; in the hut of Manon Dax, and by the hedge rows, and in the ditches, that made the sick beds of many another, as old, as wretched, and as nobly stubborn against alms; in times of drought or in inclement winters, the people in all that country side suffered continually from the hunger page: 171 torment; she had often passed by men and women, and children, crouching in black and wretched cabins, or lying fever stricken on the cold stony fields, glad to gnaw a shred of sheepskin, or suck a thorny bramble of the fields to quiet the gnawing of their entrails.

She stood still beside him, and thought.

All light had died; the night was black with storm; the shadowy shapes were gone; there were the roar of the rushing river, and the tumult of the winds and rains upon the silence; all she saw was this golden head; this colourless face; this lean and nerveless hand that rested on the feebly beating heart;—these she saw still as she would have seen the white outlines of a statue in the dark.

He moved a little, with a hollow sigh.

“Bread,—bread,—bread!” he muttered. “To die for bread!—”

At the words, all the quick resource and self reliance which the hard life she led had sharpened and strengthened in her, awoke amidst the dreams and passions, and meditations of her mystical faiths, and her poetic ignorance.

The boldness and the independence of her nature roused themselves; she had prayed for him to the gods, and to the gods given herself for him; that was well—if they kept their faith. But if they forsook it? The blood rushed back to her heart with its old proud current; alone, she swore to herself to save him. To save him in the gods’ despite.

In the street that day, she had found the half of a roll of black bread. It had lain in the mud, none claiming it: a sulky lad passed it in scorn, a beggar with gold in his wallet kicked it aside with his crutch; she took it and put it by for her supper; so often some stripe or some jibe replaced a begrudged meal for her at Flamma’s board.

That was all she had. A crust dry as a bone, which could do nothing towards saving him, could be of no more use to pass those clenched teeth, and warm those frozen veins, than so much of the wet sand gathered up from the river shore. Neither could there be any wood, which, if brought in and lit, would burn. All the timber was green and full of sap, and all, for a score square leagues around, was at that hour drenched with water.

She knew that the warmth of fire to dry the deadly page: 172 dampness in the air, the warmth of wine to quicken the chillness and the torpor of the reviving life, were what were wanted beyond all other things. She had seen famine in all its stages, and she knew the needs and dangers of that fell disease.

There was not a creature in all the world, who would have given her so much as a loaf or a faggot; even if the thought of seeking human aid had ever dawned on her.

As it was, she never even dreamed of it; every human hand,—to the rosy fist of the smallest and fairest child,—was always clenched against her; she would have sooner asked for honey from a lot of snakes, or sought a bed of roses in a swarm of wasps, than have begged mercy or aid at any human hearth.

She knew nothing, either, of an social laws that might have made such need as this, a public care on public alms. She was used to see men, women, and children perishing of want; she had heard people curse the land that bore, and would not nourish, them. She was habituated to work hard for every bit or drop that passed her lips; she lived amidst multitudes who did the same; she knew nothing of any public succour to which appeal could in such straits be made.

If bread were not forthcoming, a man or a woman had to die for lack of it, as Manon Dax and Marcellin had done; that seemed to her a rule of fate, against which there was no good in either resistance or appeal.

What could she do? she pondered. Whatever she would do, she knew that she had to do quickly. Yet she stood irresolute.

To do anything, she had to stoop herself down to that sin to which no suffering or privation of her own had ever tempted her.

In a vague fierce fashion, unholpen and untaught, she hated all sin.

All quoted it as her only birthright; all told her that she was imbued with it body and soul; all saw it in her slightest acts, in her most harmless words; and she abhorred this, the one gift which men cast to her as her only heirloom, with a strong scornful loathing which stood her in the stead of virtue.

With an instinctive cynicism which moved her con‐ page: 173 tinually, yet to which she could have given no name, she had loved to see the children and the maidens,—those who held her accursed, and were themselves held so innocent and just,—steal the ripe cherries from the stalk, pluck the forbidden flowers that nodded over the convent walls, pierce through the boundary fence to reach another’s pear, speak a lie softly to the old greyheaded priest, and lend their ripe lips to a soldier’s rough salute, whilst she, the daughter of hell, pointed at, despised, shunned as a leper, hunted as a witch,—kept her hands soilless and her lips untouched.

It was a pride to her, to say in her teeth, “I am stronger than they,” when she saw the stolen peach in their hand, and heard the lying word on their tongue. It had a savage sweetness for her, the will with which she denied herself the luxurious fruit that, unseen, she could have reached a thousand times from the walls when her throat was parched and her body empty; with which she uttered the truth, and the truth alone, though it brought the blows of the cudgel down on her shoulders; with which she struck aside in disdain, the insolent eyes, and mocking mouths of the youths, who would fain have taught her, that if beggared of all other things, she was at least rich in form and hue.

She hated sin, for sin seemed to her only a human word for utter feebleness; she had never sinned for herself, as far as she knew; yet to serve this man, on whose face she had never looked before that night, she was ready to stoop to the thing which she abhorred.

She had been so proud of her freedom for all those frailties of passion, and greed, and self pity, with which the souls of the maidens around her were haunted;—so proud, with the chaste, tameless arrogance of the women of her race, that was bred in their blood, and taught them as their first duty, by the oriental and jealous laws of their vengeful and indolent masters.

She had been so proud!—yet the cleanliness of hand and heart, this immunity from her enemies’ weakness, this independence which she had worn as a buckler of proof against all blows, which she had girded about her as a zone of purity more precious than gold—this, the sole treasure she had, she was about to surrender for the sake of a stranger.

It was a greater gift, and one harder to give, than this mortal life she had offered for his to his gods.

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As she kneeled on the stone floor beside him, her heart was torn with a mute and violent struggle; her bent face grew dark and rigid, her haughty brows knit together in sadness and conflict.

In the darkness he moved a little; he was unconscious, yet ever, in that burning stupor, one remembrance, one regret, remained with him.

“That the mind of a man can be killed for the want of the food thrown to swine!” he muttered drearily, in the one gleam of reason that shone through the delirium of his brain.

The words were broken, disjointed, almost inarticulate; but they stung her to action as the spur stings a horse.

She started erect, and crossed the chamber, leapt through the open portion of the casement, and lighted again without, knee deep in water. She lost her footing and fell, entangled in the rushes; but she rose and climbed in the darkness to where the roots of an oak stump stretched into the stream, and, gaining the shore, ran as well as the storm and the obscurity allowed her, along the bank, straight towards Yprès.

It was a wild and bitter night; the rushing of the foaming river went by her all the way; the path was flooded; she was up to her ankles in water at every step, and was often forced to wade through channels a foot deep.

She went on straight towards her home, unconscious of cold, of fatigue, of her wet clinging clothes, of the water that splashed unseen in the black night up against her face as her steps sank into some shaking strip of marsh, some brook that, in the rising of the river, ran hissing and swelling to twice its common height.

All she was sensible of was of one inspiration, one purpose, one memory that seemed to give her the wings of the wind, and yet to clog her feet with the weight of lead,—the memory of that white and senseless face, lying beneath the watch of the cruel gods.

She reached Yprès, feeling and scenting her way by instinct, as a dog does, all through the tumult of the air and against the force of the driving rains. She met no living creature; the weather was too bad for even a beggar to be afoot in it, and even the stray and homeless beasts page: 175 had sought some shelter from a ruined shed or crumbling wall.

As softly as a leaf may fall she unloosed the latch of the orchard, stole through the trees, and took her way in an impenetrable gloom, with the swift sure flight of one to whom the place had long been as familiar by night as day.

The uproar of wind and rain would have muffled the loudest tread. The shutters of the mill‐house were all closed; it was quite still. Flamma and his serving people were all gone to their beds, that they might save by sleep the cost of wood and candle.

She passed round to the side of the house, climbed up the tough network of a tree of ivy, and without much labour loosed the fastenings of her own loft window, and entering there passed through the loft into the body of the house.

Opening the door of the landing‐place noiselessly, she stole down the staircase, making no more sound than a hare makes stealing over mosses to its form. The ever‐wakeful lightly‐sleeping ears of a miser were near at hand; but even they were not aroused; and she passed down unheard.

She went hardily, fearlessly, her mind once set upon the errand. She did not reason with herself, as more timorous creatures might have done, that being half starved, and paid not at all, as recompense for strong and continual labour, she was but about to take a just due withheld, a fair wage long overdue. She only resolved to take what another needed by a violence which she had never employed to serve her own needs, and having resolved went to execute her resolution with the unhesitating dauntlessness that was bred in her, flesh and bone.

Knowing all the turns and steps of the obscure passages, she quickly found her way to the store chambers where such food and fuel as were wanted in the house were stored.

The latter was burnt and the former eaten sparingly and grudgingly, but the store of both was at this season of the year fairly abundant.

It had more than once happened that the mill had been cut off from all communication with the outer world by floods that had reached its upper casements, and Claudis page: 176 Flamma was provided against any such accidents; the more abundantly as he had more than once found it a lucrative matter in such seasons of inundation to lower provisions from his roof to boats floating below when the cotters around were in dire need and ready to sell their very souls for a bag of rice or string of onions.

Folle‐Farine opened the shutter of the store‐room and let in the faint grey glimmer from the clearing skies.

A bat which had been resting from the storm among the rafters fluttered violently against the lattice; a sparrow driven down the chimney in the hurricane flew up from one of the shelves with a twittering outcry.

She paused to open the lattice for them both, and set them free to fly forth into the still sleeping world; then she took an old rush basket that hung upon a nail, and filled it with the best of such homely food as was to be found there—loaves, and meats, and rice, and oil, and a flask of the richest wine—wine of the south, of the hue of the violet, sold under secrecy at a high charge and profit.

That done, she tied together as large a bundle of brushwood and of faggots as she could push through the window, which was broad and square, and thrust it out by slow degrees; put her basket through likewise, and lowered it carefully to the ground; she followed them herself with the agility born of long practice, and dropped on the grass beneath.

She waited but to close and refasten the shutter from without, then threw the mass of faggots on her shoulders, and carrying in her arms the osier basket, took her backward way through the orchards to the river.

She had not taken either bit or drop for her own use.

She was well used to carry burdens as heavy as the mules bore, and to walk under them unassisted fro many leagues to the hamlets and markets round about. But even her strength of bronze had become fatigued; she felt frozen to the bone; her clothes were saturated with water, and her limbs were chill and stiff. Yet she trudged on, unblenching and unpausing, over the soaked earth, and through the swollen water and the reeds, keeping always by the side of the stream, that was so angry in the darkness; by the side of the grey flooded sands, and the rushes that were blowing with a sound like the sea.

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She met no living creature except a fox, who rushed between her feet, holding in its mouth a screaming chicken.

Once she stumbled and struck her head and breast with a dull blow against a pile of wood which, in the furious weather, was unseen by her. It stunned her for the instant, but she rallied and looked up with eyes as used to pierce the deepest gloom as any goshawk’s; she discerned the outline of the Calvary, towering high and weird‐like above the edge of the river, where the priests and people had placed it, so that the boatmen boatman could abase themselves and do it honour as they passed the banks.

The lantern on the cross shone far across the stream, but shed no light upon the path she followed.

At its foot she had stumbled and been bruised upon her errand of mercy; the reflection of its rays streamed across to the opposing shore, and gave help to a boat load of smugglers landing stolen tobacco in a little creek.

She recovered herself and trudged on once more along the lonely road.

“How like their god is to them!” she thought: the wooden crucifix was the type of her persecutors; of those who flouted and mocked her, who flung and pierced her as a witch; who cursed her because she was not of their people.

The cross was the hatred of the world incarnated to her; it was in Christ’s name that Marcellin’s corpse had been cast on the dung and in the ditch; it was in Christ’s name that the women had avenged on her the pity which she had shown to Manon Dax; it was in Christ’s name that Flamma had scourged her because she would not pass rotten figs for sweet. For the name of Christ is used to cover every crime, by the peasant who cheats his neighbour of a copper coin, as by the sovereign who massacres a nation for a throne.

She left the black cross reared there against the rushes, and plodded on through sand and rain and flood, bearing her load: in Christ’s name they would have seized her as a thief.

The storm abated a little, and every now and then a gleam of moonlight was shed upon the flooded meadows. She gained the base of the tower, and by means of the length of rope let, by degrees, the firewood and the basket page: 178 through the open portion of the window on to the floor below, then again followed them herself.

Her heart thrilled as she entered.

Her first glance to the desolate hearth showed her that the hours of her absence had brought no change there.

The gods had not kept faith with her, they had not raised him from the dead.

“They have left it all to me,” she thought, with the old strange sweet yearning in her heart over this life that she had bought with her own.

She first flung the faggots and brushwood on the hearth, and set them on fire to burn, fanned by the breath of the wind. Then she poured out a little of the wine, and kneeled down by him, and forced it drop by drop through his colourless lips, raising his head upon her as she kneeled.

The wine was pure and old; it suffused his attenuated frame as with a rush of new blood; under her hand his heart moved with firmer and quicker movement.

She broke bread in the wine and put the soaked morsels to his mouth as softly as she would have fed some little shivering bird made nestless by the hurricane.

He was unconscious still, but he swallowed what she held to him, without knowing what he did; a slight warmth gradually spread over his limbs; a strong shudder shook him. His eyes looked dully at her through a film of exhaustion and of sleep.

“J’avais quelque chose là!” he muttered, incoherently, his voice rattling in his hollow chest, as he raised himself a little on one arm. “J’avais quelque chose là!” and with a sigh he fell back once more—his head tossing in uneasiness from side to side.

Amidst the heat and mists of his aching brain, one thought remained with him—that he had created things greater than himself, and that he died like a dog, powerless to save them. The saddest dying words that the air ever bare on its breath—the one bitter vain regret of every genius that the common herds of men stamp out under leaden hoofs, as they slay their mad cattle or their drunken mobs—stayed on the blurred confusion of his mind, which, in its stupor and its helplessness, still knew that once it had been strong to create—that once it had been clear to record—that once it had dreamed the dreams that save men page: 179 from the life of the swine—that once it had told to the world the truth divested of lies,—and that none had seen, none had listened to, none had believed.

There is no more terrible woe upon earth than the woe of the stricken brain, which remembers the days of its strength, the living light of its reason, the sunrise of its proud intelligence, and knows that these have passed away like a tale that is told; like a year that is spent; like an arrow that is shot to the stars, and flies aloft, and falls in a swamp; like a fruit that is too well loved of the sun, and so, over‐soon ripe, is dropped from the tree and forgot on the grasses, dead to all joys of the dawn and the noon and the summer, but still alive to the sting of the wasp, to the fret of the aphis, to the burn of the drought, to the theft of the parasite.

She only dimly understood, and yet she was smitten with awe and reverence at that endless grief which had no taint of cowardice upon it, but was pure as the patriot’s despair, impersonal as the prophet’s agony.

For the first time, the intellect in her consciously awoke. For the first time she heard a human mind find voice even in its stupor and its wretchedness to cry aloud, in reproach to its unknown Creator:

“I am yours! Shall I perish with the body? Why have you ever bade me desire the light and seek it, if for ever you must thrust me into the darkness of negation? Shall I be Nothing?—like the muscle that rots, like the bones that crumble, like the flesh that turns to ashes, and blows in a film on the winds? Shall I die so? I?—the mind of a man, the breath of a god?”

Time went by; the chimes from the cathedral tolled dully through the darkness, over the expanse of the flood.

The light from the burning wood shone redly and fitfully. The sigh and moan of the tossed rushes, and of the water birds, awakened and afraid, came from the outer world on the winds that blew through the desolation of the haunted chamber. Grey owls flew in the high roof, taking refuge from the night. Rats hurried noiseless and eager over the stones of the floor, seeking stray grains that fell through the rafters from the granaries above.

She noticed none of these things; she never looked up nor around: all she heard was the throb of the delirious words page: 180 on the silence, all she saw was the human face in the clouded light through the smoke from the flame.

The glow of the fire shone on the bowed head of Thanatos, the laughing eyes of Pan, Hermes’ fair cold derisive face, and the majesty of the Lykegênês toiling in the ropes that bound him to the mill‐stones to grind bread, for the mortal appetites and the ineloquent lips of men.

But at the gods she barely looked; her eyes were bent upon the human form beside her.

She crouched beside him, half kneeling and half sitting: her clothes were drenched, the fire scorched, the draughts of air froze, her; she had neither eaten nor drunk since the noon of the day; but she had no other remembrance than of this life which had the beauty of the sun‐king and the misery of the beggar.

He lay long, restless, unconscious, muttering strange sad words, at times of sense, at times of folly, but always, whether lucid or delirious, words of rebellion against his fate, of a despairing lament for the soul in him that would be with the body quenched.

After awhile the feverish mutterings of his voice grew lower and less frequent; his eyes seemed to become sensible of the glare of the fire, and to contract and close in a more conscious pain; after a yet longer time he ceased to stir so restlessly, ceased to sigh and shudder; he grew quite still, his breath came tranquilly, his head fell back, and he sank to a deep sleep.

The personal fears, the womanly terrors, which would have assailed creatures at once less savage and less innocent never moved her for an instant. That there was any strangeness in her action, any peril in this solitude, she never dreamed. Her heart, bold with the blood of Taric, could know no physical fear; and her mind at once ignorant and visionary, her temper at once fierce and unselfish, kept from her all thought of those suspicions, which would fall on and chastise an act like hers; suspicions, such as would have made women less pure and less dauntless tremble at that lonely house, that night of storm, that unknown fate which she had taken into her own hands, unwitting and unheeding whether good or evil might be the issue thereof.

To her he was beautiful, he suffered, she had saved him page: 181 from death, and he was hers: and this was all that she remembered. She dealt with him as she would have done with some forest beast or bird that she should have found frozen in the woods of winter.

His head had fallen on her, and she crouched unwearied in the posture that gave him easiest rest. With a touch so light that it could not awaken him, she stroked the lustreless gold of his hair, and from time to time felt for the inaudible beating of his heart.

Innumerable dreams, shapeless, delicious, swept through her brain, as the echoes of some music, faint yet unutterably sweet, that half arouses and half soothes some sleeper in a grey drowsy summer dawn.

For the first time since the melodies of Phratos had died for ever from off her ear she was happy.

She did not ask wherefore,—neither of herself nor of the gods did she question whence came this wonder‐flower of her nameless joy. She only sat quiet, and let the hours drift by, and watched this stranger as he slept, and was content.

So the night passed.

Whilst yet it seemed night still, the silence trembled with the pipe of waking birds, the darkness quivered with the pale first rays of dawn.

Over the flood and the fields the first light broke. From the unseen world behind the mist, faint bells rang in the coming day.

He moved in his sleep, and his eyes unclosed, and looked at her face as it hung above him, like some drooped rose heavy with the too great sweetness of a summer shower.

It was but the gaze of a moment, and his lids dropped again, weighted with the intense weariness of a slumber that held all his senses close in its leaden chains. But the glance, brief though it was, had been conscious;—under it a sudden flush passed over her, as the life stirs in the young woodlands at the near coming of the spring. For the first time since her birth she became wholly human.

A sharp terror made her tremble like a leaf; she put his head softly from her on the ground, and rose, quivering, to her feet.

It was not the gods whom she feared, it was herself. She page: 182 had never once known that she had beauty, any more than the flower knows it blowing on the wind. She had passed through the crowds of fair and market, not knowing why the youths looked after her with cruel eyes all aglow. She had walked through them, indifferent and unconscious, only thinking that they wanted to hunt her down as an unclean beast, and dared not, because her teeth were strong.

She had taken a vague pleasure in the supple grace of her own form, as she saw it mirrored in some woodland pool where she had bathed amidst the water‐lilies; but it had been only such an instinctive and unstudied pleasure as the swan takes in seeing her silver breast shine back to her, on the glassy current adown which she sails.

Now,—as she rose and stood, as the dawn broke, beside him, on the hearth, and heard the birds’ first waking notes, that told her the sun was even then touching the edge of the veiled world to light, a hot shame smote her, and the womanhood in her woke.

She looked down on herself, and saw that her soaked skirts were knotted above her knees, as she had bound them when she had leaped from the boat’s side; that her limbs were wet and glistening with river water, and the moisture from the grasses, and the sand and shingle of the shore; and that the linen of her vest, threadbare with age, left her arms bare to the shoulders, and showed, through its rents, the gleam of her warm brown skin and the curves of her shining shoulders.

A sudden horror came upon her, lest he should awake again and see her as she was;—wet, miserable, half‐clothed, wind‐tossed like the rushes, outcast and ashamed.

She did not know that she had beauty in her; she did not know that even as she was, she had an exquisite grace in her savage loveliness, as storm‐birds have in theirs against the thunder‐cloud and the lightning blaze of their water‐world in tempest.

She felt a sudden shrinking from all chance of his clearer and more conscious gaze; a sudden agony of shy dread, and longing to hide herself under the earth, or take refuge in the depths of the waters, rather than meet the eyes to which she had given back the light of life cast on her in abhorrence and in scorn. That he could have any other look for her, she had no thought.

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She had been an outcast amongst an alien people too long to dream that any human love or gratitude or praise could ever fall on her. She had been too long cursed by every tongue, to dream that any human voice could ever arise in honour or in welcome to a thing so despised and criminal as she. For the gift which she had given this man too would only live to curse her;—that she had known when she had offered it.

She drew her rude garments closer, and stole away with velvet footfall, through the twilight of the dawn; her head hung down, and her face was flushed as with some great guilt.

With the rising of the day all her new joy was dead. With the waking of the world, all her dreams shrank back into secrecy and shame. The mere timid song of the linnet in the leafless bushes seemed sharp on her ear, calling on her to rise and go and toil with the beasts of the share and the shaft, as the creature of labour, of exile, of namelessness, and of despair, that men had made her.

At the casement, she turned and cast one lingering glance upon him where he slept; then once more she launched herself into the dusky watery mists of the cold dawn.

She had made no more sound in her passing than a bird makes in its flight.

The sleeper never stirred, but dreamed on motionless, in the darkness and the silence, and the drowsy warmth.

He dreamed indeed, of a woman’s form, half‐bare, golden of hue like a fruit of the south, blue veined, and flushed to changing rose heats, like an opal’s fire; with limbs strong and yet slender, gleaming wet with water, and brown arched feet shining with silvery sands; with mystical eyes, black as night and amorous‐lidded; and a mouth like the half‐closed bud of a flower, which sighing seemed to breathe upon him the fragrance of dim cedar‐woods shrouded in summer rains, of honey‐weighted heather blown by moorland winds, of almond blossoms shed like snow against a purple sea; of all things air‐born, sun‐fed, fair and free.

But he saw these only as in a dream; and, as a dream, when he awakened they had passed.

Though still dark from mists and heavy clouds, the dawn page: 184 grew on to morning as she went noiselessly away over the grey sands, the wet shore paths, the sighing rushes.

The river‐meadows were all flooded, and on the opposite banks the road was impassable; but on her side she could still find footing, for the ground there had a steeper rise, and the swollen tide had not reached in any public roadway too high for her to wade, or draw herself by the half‐merged bushes through it on the homeward tracks to Yprès.

The low sun was hidden in a veil of water. The old convent‐bells of all the country‐side rang through the mists. The day was very young as yet; but the life of the soil and the stream was waking as the birds were. Boats went by on the current, bearing a sad freightage of sheep drowned in the night, and ruined peasants, whose little wealth of stack and henhouse had been swept down by the unlooked‐for tide.

From the distant banks, the voices of women came muffled through the fog, weeping and wailing for some lost lamb, choked by the water in its fold, or some pretty breadth of garden, just welcome to their sight with snowdrops and with violets, that had been laid desolate and washed away.

Through the clouds of vapour that curled in a dense opaque smoke from the wet earth, there loomed the dusky shapes of oxen; their belled horns sending forth a pleasant music from the gloom. On the air there was an odour from soaked grasses and upturned sods, from the breath of the herds lowing hock deep in water, from the green knots of broken primrose roots sailing by on the brown rough river.

A dying bush of grey lavender swept by on the stream; it had the fresh earth of its lost garden home still about it; and in its stems a robin had built her little nest. The nest streamed in tatters and ruin on the wind, the robin flew above the wreck fluttering and uttering shrill notes of woe.

Folle‐Farine saw nothing.

She held on her way blindly, mutely, mechanically, by sheer force of long habit. Her mind was in a trance: she was insensible of pain or cold, of hunger or fever, of time or place.

Yet she went straight home, as the horse being blinded will do, to the place where its patience and fealty have never been recompensed with any other thing than blows.

page: 185

As she had groped her way through the gloom of the night, and found it, though the light of the roadside Christ had been turned from her, so in the same blind manner she had groped her way to her own conceptions of honesty and duty. She hated the bitter and cruel old man, with a slave’s hatred, mute and enduring, that nothing could have changed; but all the same she served him faithfully. She was an untamed animal indeed, that he had yoked to his ploughshare; but she did her work loyally and doggedly; and whenever she had shaken her neck free of the yoke, she returned and thrust her head through it again, whether he scourged her back to it or not.

It was partially from the force of habit which is strong upon all creatures; it was partially from a vague instinct in her to work out her right to the begrudged shelter which she received, and not to be beholden for it for one single hour to any charity.

The mill was at work in the twilight when she reached it.

Claudis Flamma screamed at her from the open door of the loft, where he was weighing corn for the grinding.

“You have been away all night long!”

She was silent; standing below in the wet garden.

He cast a foul word at her, new upon his lips. She was silent all the same; her arms crossed on her breast, her head bent.

“Where is the boat?—that is worth more than your body. And soul you have none.”

She raised her head and looked upward.

“I have lost the boat.”

She thought that, very likely, he would kill her for it. Once when she had lost an osier basket, not a hundredth part of the cost of this vessel, he had beaten her till every bone in her frame had seemed broken for many a week. But she looked up quietly, standing there amongst the dripping bushes and the cheerless grassy ways.

That she never told a lie, he above in the loft knew by long proof; but this was in his sight only a piece with the strength born in her from the devil; the devil had in all ages told so many truths to the confusion of the saints of God.

“Drifted where?”

page: 186

“I do not know—on the face of the flood,—with the tide.”

“You had left it loose?”

“I got out to push it off the sand. It had grounded. I forgot it. It went adrift.”

“What foul thing were you at meanwhile?”

She was silent.

“If you do not say, I will cut your heart out with a hundred stripes!”

“You can.”

“I can! you shall know truly that I can! Go, get the boat—find it above or below water—or to the town prison you go as a thief.”

The word smote her with a sudden pang. For the first time her courage failed her. She turned and went in silence at his bidding.

In the wet daybreak, through the swollen pools and the soaked thickets, she searched for the missing vessel; knowing well that it would be scarcely less than a miracle which could restore it to her; and that the god upon the cross worked no miracles for her;—a child of sin.

For several hours she searched; hungry, drenched, ready to drop with exhaustion, as she was used to see the overdriven cattle sink upon the road.

She passed many peasants; women on their mules, men in their barges, children searching for such flotsam and jetsam as the water might have flung upon the land from the little flooded gardens, and the few riverside cabins, which it had invaded in the night. She asked tidings of the boat from none of these. What she could not do for herself, it never occurred to her that others could do for her. It was an ignorance that was strength.

At length, to her amaze, she found it; saved for her by the branches of a young tree, which, being blown down, had fallen into the stream, and had caught the boat hard and fast as in a net.

At sore peril to herself she dislodged it with infinite labour from the entanglement of the boughs, and at scarce less peril, rowed on her homeward way upon the swollen force of the turbid river; full against the tide which again was flowing inland, from the sea that beat the bar, away to the northward, in the full sunrise.

page: 187

It was far on in the forenoon, as she drew near the orchards of Yprès, brown in their leaflessness, and with grey lichens blowing from their boughs, like hoary beards of trembling paupers shaking in the icy breaths of charity.

She saw that Claudis Flamma was at work amidst his trees, pruning and delving in the red and chilly day.

She went up the winding stairs, planks green and slippery with wet river reeds, which led straight through the apple orchards to the mill.

“I have found the boat,” she said, standing before him; her voice was faint and very tired, her whole body drooped with fatigue, her head for once was bowed.

He turned with his billhook in his hands. There was a leap of gladness at his heart; the miser’s gladness over recovered treasure; but he showed such welcome neither in his eye nor words.

“It is well for you that you have,” he said with bitter meaning. “I will spare you half the stripes:—strip.”

Without a word of remonstrance, standing before him in the grey shadow of the lichens, and the red mists of the morning, she pushed the rough garments from her breast and shoulders, and vanquishing her weakness, drew herself erect to receive the familiar chastisement.

“I am guilty—this time,” she said to herself as the lash fell:—she was thinking of her theft.

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