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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 187


A SCORE of years before, in a valley of the far north, a group of eager and silent listeners stood gathered about one man, who spoke aloud with fervent and rapturous oratory.

It was in the green Norwegian spring, when the silence of the winter world had given way to a million sounds of waking life from budding leaves and nesting birds, and melting torrents and warm winds, fanning the tender primrose into being, and wooing the red Alpine rose to blossom.

The little valley was peopled by a hardy race of herdsmen page: 188 and of fishers; men who kept their goat flocks on the steep sides of the mountains, or went down to the deep waters in search of a scanty subsistence. But they were a people simple, noble, grave, even in a manner heroic and poetic, a people nurtured on the old grand songs of a mighty past, and holding a pure faith in the traditions of a great sea‐sovereignty. They listened, breathless, to the man who addressed them, raised on a tribune of rough rock, and facing the ocean, where it stretched at the northern end of the vale; a man peasant‐born himself, but gifted with a native eloquence; half‐poet, half‐preacher; fanatic and enthusiast; one who held it as his errand to go to and fro the land, raising his voice against the powers of the world, and of wealth, and who spoke against these with a fervour and force which, to the unlearned and impressionable multitudes that heard him, seemed the voice of a genius heaven‐sent.

When a boy he had been a shepherd, and dreaming in the loneliness of the mountains, and by the side of the deep hill‐lakes far away from any sound or steps of human life, a madness, innocent, and in its way beautiful, had come upon him.

He believed himself born to carry the message of grace to the nations; and to raise up his voice against those passions whose fury had never assailed him, and against those riches whose sweetness he had never tasted. So he had wandered from city to city, from village to village; mocked in some places, revered in others; protesting always against the dominion of wealth, and speaking with a strange pathos and poetry which thrilled the hearts of his listeners, and had in it, at times, almost the menace and the mystery of a prophet’s upbraiding.

He lived very poorly; he was gentle as a child; he was a cripple and very feeble; he drank at the wayside rills with the dogs; he lay down on the open fields with the cattle; yet he had a power in him that had its sway over the people, and held the scoffers and the jesters quiet under the spell of his tender and flute‐like voice.

Raised above the little throng upon the bare red rock, with the green fiords and the dim pine‐woods stretching round him as far as his eye could reach, he preached, now to the groups of fishers and herdsmen, and foresters and hunters; protesting to this simple people against the force page: 189 of wealth, and the lust of possession, as though he preached to princes and to conquerors.

He told them of what he had seen in the great cities through which he had wandered; of the corruption and the vileness, and the wantonness; of the greed in which the days and the years of men’s lives were spent; of the amassing of riches for which alone the nations cared, so that all loveliness, all simplicity, all high endeavour, all innocent pastime, were abjured and derided amongst them. His voice was sweet and full as the swell of the music as he spoke to them, telling them one of the many fables and legends, of which he had gathered a full harvest, in the may lands that had felt his footsteps.

This was the parable he set before them that day, whilst the rude toilers of the forests and the ocean stood quiet as little children, hearkening with upturned faces and bated breath, as the sun went down behind the purple pines.

“There lived once in the east, a great king; he dwelt far away, amongst the fragrant fields of roses, and in the light of suns that never set.

“He was young, he was beloved, he was fair of face and form; and the people as they hewed stone, or brought water, said amongst themselves, ‘Verily, this man is as a god; he goes where he lists, and he lies still or rises up as he pleases; and all fruits of all lands are culled for him; and his nights are nights of gladness, and his days, when they dawn, are all his to sleep through or spend as he wills.’ But the people were wrong. For this king was weary of his life.

“His buckler was sown with gems, but his heart beneath it was sore. For he had been long bitterly harassed by foes who descended on him as wolves from the hills in their hunger, and he ha been long plauged with heavy wars and with bad rice harvests, and with many troubles to his nation that kept it very poor, and forbade him to finish the building of new marble palaces, and the making of fresh gardens of delight, on which his heart was set. So he, being weary of a barren land and of an empty treasury, with all his might prayed to the gods that all he touched might turn to gold, even as he had heard had happened to some magician page: 190 long before in other ages. And the gods gave him the thing he craved; and his treasury overflowed. No king had ever been so rich, as this king now became in the short space of a single summer‐day.

“But it was bought with a price.

“When he stretched out his hand to gather the rose that blossomed in his path, a golden flower scentless and stiff was all he grasped. When he called to him the carrier‐dove that sped with a scroll of love words across the mountains, the bird sank on his breast a carven piece of metal. When he was athirst and shouted to his cup bearer for drink, the red wine ran a stream of molten gold. When he would fain have eaten, the pulse and pomegranate grew alike to gold between his teeth. And lo! at eventide, when he sought the silent chambers of his harem, saying, ‘here at least shall I find rest,’ and bent his steps to the couch whereon his best beloved slave was sleeping, a statue of gold was all he drew into his eager arms, and cold shut lips of sculptured gold were all that met his own.

“That night the great king slew himself, unable any more to bear this agony; since all around him was desolation, even though all around him was wealth.

“Now the world is too like that king, and in its greed of gold it will barter its life away.

“Look you,—this thing is certain—I say that the world will perish, even as that king perished, slain as he was slain, by the curse of its own fulfilled desire.

“The future of the world is written. For God has granted their prayer to men. He has made them rich and their riches shall kill them.

“When all green places have been destroyed in the builder’s lust of gain:—when all the lands are but mountains of brick, and piles of wood and iron:—when there is no moisture anywhere; and no rain ever falls:—when the sky is a vault of smoke; and all the rivers reek with poison:—when forest and stream, and moor and meadow, and all the old green wayside beauty are things vanished and forgotten:—when every gentle timid thing of brake and bush, of air and water, has been killed, because it robbed them of a berry or a fruit:—when the earth is one vast city, whose young children behold neither the green of the field nor the blue of the sky; and hear no song but the hiss of the stream, and page: 191 know no music but the roar of the furnace:—when the old sweet silence of the country‐side, and the old sweet sounds of waking birds, and the old sweet fall of summer showers, and the grace of a hedge‐row bough, and the glow of the purple heather, and the note of the cuckoo and cushat, and the freedom of waste and of woodland, are all things dead, and remembered of no man:—then the world, like the Eastern king, will perish miserably of famine and of drought, with gold in its stiffened hands, and gold in its withered lips, and gold everywhere:—gold that the people can neither eat nor drink, gold that cares nothing for them, but mocks them horribly:—gold for which their fathers sold peace and health, and holiness and liberty:—gold that is one vast grave.”

His voice sank, and the silence that followed was only filled with the sound of the winds in the pine‐woods, and the sound of the sea on the shore.

The people were very still and afraid; for it seemed to them that he had spoken as prophets speak, and that his words were words of truth.

Suddenly on the awe‐stricken silence an answering voice rang, clear, scornful, bold, and with the eager and fearless defiance of youth.

“If I had been that king, I would not have cared for woman, or bird, or rose. I would have lived long enough to enrich my nation, and mass my armies, and die a conqueror. What would the rest have mattered? You are mad, O Preacher! to rail against gold. You flout a god that you know not, and that never has smiled upon you.”

The speaker stood outside the crowd with a dead sea‐bird in his hand; he was in his early boyhood, he had long locks of bright hair that curled loosely on his shoulders, and eyes of northern blue, that flashed like steel in their scorn.

The people, indignant and terrified at the cold rough words which blasphemed their prophet, turned with one accord to draw off the rash doubter from that sacred audience place, but the Preacher stayed their hands with a gesture, and looked sadly at the boy.

“Is it thee, Arslàn—dost thou praise gold?—I thought thou hadst greater gods.”

The boy hung his head and his face flushed.

page: 192

“Gold must be power always,” he muttered. “And without power what is life?”

And he went on his way out from the people with his dead bird, which he had slain with a stone that he might study the exquisite mystery of its silvery hues.

The Preacher followed him dreamily with his glance.

“Yet he will not give his life for gold,” he murmured. “For there is that in him greater than gold, which will not let him sell it, if he would.”