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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 192

CHAPTER V.

AND the words of the Preacher had come true; so true that the boy Arslàn, grown to manhood, had dreamed of fame, followed the genius in him, and having failed to force the world to show faith in him, had dropped down dying on a cold hearth, for sheer lack of bread, under the eyes of the gods.

It had long been day when he awoke.

The wood smouldered, still warming the stone chamber. The owls that nested in the ceiling of the hall were beating their wings impatiently against the closed casements, blind with the light and unable to return to their haunts and homes. The food and the wine stood beside him on the floor; the fire had scared the rats from theft.

He raised himself slowly, and by sheer instinct ate and drank with the avidity of long fast. Then he stared around him blankly, blinded like the owls.

It seemed to him that he had been dead; and had risen from the grave.

“It will be to suffer it all over again in a little space,” he muttered dully.

His first sensation was disappointment, anger, weariness. He did not reason. He only felt.

His mind was a blank.

Little by little a disjointed remembrance came to him. He remembered that he had been famished in the coldness of the night, had endured much torment of the body, had page: 193 fallen headlong and lost his consciousness. This was all he could recall.

He looked stupidly for awhile at the burning logs; at the pile of brambles; at the flask of wine, and the simple stores of food. He looked at the grey closed window, through which a silvery daylight came. There was not a sound in the house; there was only the cracking of the wood and the sharp sealike smell of the smoking pine boughs, to render the place different from what it had been when he last had seen it.

He could recall nothing, except that he had starved for many days; had suffered, and must have slept.

Suddenly his face burned with a flush of shame. As sense returned to him, he knew that he must have swooned from weakness produced by cold and hunger; that some one must have seen and succoured his necessity; and that the food which he had half unconsciously devoured must have been the food of alms.

His limbs writhed and his teeth clenched as the thought stole on him.

To have gone through all the aching pangs of winter in silence, asking aid of none, only to come to this at last! To have been ready to die in all the vigour of virility, in all the strength of genius, only to be saved by charity at the end! To have endured, mute and patient, the travail of all the barren years, only at their close to be called back to life by aid that was degradation!

He bit his lips till the blood started, as he thought of it. Some eyes must have looked on him, in his wretchedness. Some face must have bent over him in misery. Some other human form must have been near his in this hour of his feebleness and need, or this thing could never have been. He would have died alone and unremembered of man, like a snake in its swamp or a fox in its earth. And such a death would have been to him tenfold preferable to a life restored to him by such means as these.

Death before accomplishments is a failure, yet withal may be great; but life saved by alms is a failure, and a failure for ever inglorious.

So the shame of this ransom for death far outweighed with him the benefit.

“Why could they not let me be?” he cried in his soul page: 194 against those unknown lives which had weighed his own with the fetters of obligation. “Rather death than a debt! I was content to die; the bitterness was passed. I should have known no more. Why could they not let me be!”

And his heart was hard against them. They had stolen his only birthright—freedom.

Had he craved life so much as to desire to live by shame he would sooner have gone out into the dusky night and have snatched food enough for his wants from some rich husbandman’s granaries, or have stabbed some miser at prayers, for a bag of gold:—rather crime than the debt of a beggar.

So he reasoned; stung and made savage by the scourge of enforced humiliation. Hating himself because, in obedience to mere animal craving, he had taken and eaten, not asking whether what he took was his own.

He had closed his mouth, living, and had been ready to die mute, glad only that none had pitied him; his heart hardened itself utterly against this unknown hand which had snatched him from death’s dreamless ease and ungrudged rest, to awaken him to a humiliation that would be as ashes in his teeth so long as his life should last.

He arose slowly, and staggered to the casement.

He fancied he was delirious, and had distempered visions of the food so long desired. He knew that he had been starving long—how long? Long enough for his brain to be weak and visited with phantoms. Instinctively he touched the long round rolls of bread, the shape of the wine flask, the wicker of the basket: they were the palpable things of common life; they seemed to tell him that he had not dreamed.

Then it was charity? His lips moved with a curse.

That was his only thanksgiving.

The windows were unshuttered; through them he looked straight out upon the rising day—a day rainless and pale, and full of cool softness, after the deluge of the rains.

The faint sunlight of a spring that was still chilled by winter was shed over the flooded fields and swollen streams; snow‐white mists floated before the languid passage of the wind; and the moist land gave back, as in a mirror, the leafless trees, the wooden bridges, the belfries and the steeples, and the strange sad bleeding Christs.

page: 195

On all sides near, the meadows were sheets of water, the woods seemed to drift upon a lake; a swan’s nest was washed past on broken rushes, the great silvery birds beating their heavy wings upon the air, and pursuing their ruined home with cries. Beyond, everything was veiled in the twilight of the damp grey vapour; a world half seen, half shrouded, lovely exceedingly, filled with all divine possibilities and all hidden powers: a world such as Youth beholds with longing eyes in its visions of the future.

“A beautiful world!” he said to himself; and he smiled wearily as he said it.

Beautiful, certainly; in that delicious shadow; in that vague light: in that cloud‐like mist, wherein the earth met heaven.

Beautiful, certainly; all those mystical shapes rising from the sea of moisture which hid the earth and all the things that toiled on it. It was beautiful, this calm, dim, morning world, in which there was no sound except the distant ringing of unseen bells; this veil of vapour, whence sprang these fairy and fantastic shapes that cleft the watery air; the land to the sky, in which all homely things took grace and mystery, and every common and familiar form became transfigured.

It was beautiful; but this landscape had been seen too long and closely by him for it to have power left to cheat his senses.

Under that pure and mystical veil of the refracted rain things vile, and things full of anguish, had their being:—cattle in the slaughter‐houses; the drunkards in the hovels; disease and debauch and famine; the ditch, that was the common grave of all the poor; the hospital, where pincers and knives tore the living nerves in the inquisition of science; the fields, where the women toiled bent, cramped, and hideous; the dumb driven beasts, patient and tortured, for ever blameless, yet for ever accursed:—all these were there beneath that lovely veil, through which there came so dreamily the slender shafts of spires and the chimes of half heard bells.

He stood and watched it long, so long that the clouds descended and the vapours shifted away, and the pale sun‐rays shone clearly over a disenchanted world, where roof page: 196 joined roof and casement answered casement, and the figures on the crosses became but rude and ill‐carved daubs; and the cocks crew to one another, and the herdsmen swore at their flocks, and the oxen flinched at the goad, and the women went forth to their field work; and all the charm was gone.

Then he turned away.

The cold fresh breath of the morning had breathed upon him, and driven out the dull, delicious fancies that had possessed his brain. The simple truth was plain before him: that he had been seen by some stranger in his necessity and succoured.

He was thankless; like the sick, to whom unwelcome aid denies the refuge of the grave, calling him back to suffer, and binding on his shoulders the discarded burden of life’s infinite weariness and woes.

He was thankless; for he had grown tired of this fruitless labour, this abortive combat; he had grown tired of seeking credence and being derided for his pains, while other men prostituted their powers to base use and public gain, receiving as their wages honour and applause; he had grown tired of toiling to give beauty and divinity to a world which knew them not when it beheld them.

He had grown tired, though he was yet young, and had strength, and had passion, and had manhood. Tired—utterly, because he was destitute of all things save his genius, and in that none were found to believe.

“I have tried all things, and there is nothing of any worth.” It does not need to have worn the imperial purples and to be lying dying in old age to know thus much in all truth and all bitterness.

“Why did they give me back my life?” he said in his heart, as he turned aside from the risen sun.

He had striven to do justly with this strange, fleeting, unasked gift of existence, which comes, already warped, into our hands, and is broken by death ere we can set it straight.

He had not spent it in riot or madness, in lewd love or in gambling greed; he had been governed by great desires, though these had been fruitless, and had spent his strength to a great end, though this had been never reached.

As he turned from looking out upon the swollen stream page: 197 that rushed beneath his windows, his eyes fell upon the opposite wall, where the white shapes of his cartoons were caught by the awakening sun.

The spider had drawn his dusty trail across them; the rat had squatted at their feet; the darkness of night had enshrouded and defaced them; yet with the morning they arose, stainless, noble, undefiled.

Amongst them there was one colossal form, on which the sun poured with its full radiance.

This was the form of a captive grinding at a mill‐stone; the majestic symmetrical supple form of a man who was also a god.

In his naked limbs there was a supreme power; in his glance there was a divine command; his head was lifted as though no yoke could ever lie on that proud neck; his foot seemed to spurn the earth as though no mortal tie had ever bound him to the sod that human steps bestrode: yet at the corn‐mill he laboured, grinding wheat like the patient blinded oxen that toiled beside him.

For it was the great Apollo in Pheræ.

The hand which awoke the music of the spheres had been blood‐stained with murder; the beauty which had the light and lustre of the sun had been darkened with passion and with crime; the will which no other on earth or in heaven could withstand had been bent under the chastisement of Zeus.

He whose glance had made the black and barren slopes of Delos to laugh with fruitfulness and gladness,—he whose prophetic sight beheld all things past, present, and to come, the fate of all unborn races, the doom of all unspent ages,—he, the Far‐Striking King, laboured here beneath the curse of crime, greatest of all the gods, and yet a slave.

In all the hills and vales of Greece his Io pæan sounded still.

Upon his holy mountains there still arose the smoke of fires of sacrifice.

With dance and song the Delian maidens still hailed the divinity of Lêtô’s son.

The wave of the pure Ionian air still rang for ever with the name of Delphinios.

At Pytho and at Clarus, in Lycia and in Phokis, his oracles still breathed forth upon their fiat terror or hope page: 198 into the lives of men; and still in all the virgin forests of the world the wild beasts honoured him wheresoever they wandered, and the lion and the boar came at his bidding from the deserts to bend their free necks and their wills of fire meekly to bear his yoke in Thessaly.

Yet he laboured here at the corn‐mill of Admetus; and watching him at his bondage there stood the slender, slight, wing‐footed Hermes, with a slow, mocking smile upon his knavish lips, and a jeering scorn in his keen eyes, even as though he cried:

“O, brother, who would be greater than I! For what hast thou bartered to me the golden rod of thy wealth and thy dominion over the flocks and the herds? For seven chords strung on a shell—for a melody not even thine own! For a lyre outshone by my syrinx hast thou sold all thine empire to me. Will human ears give heed to thy song now thy sceptre has passed to my hands? Immortal music only is left thee, and the vision foreseeing the future. O god! O hero! O fool! what shall these profit thee now?”

Thus to the artist by whom they had been begotten the dim white shapes of the deities spoke. Thus he saw them, thus he heard, whilst the pale and watery sunlight lit up the form of the toiler in Pheræ.

For even as it was with the divinity of Delos, so is it likewise with the genius of a man, which, being born of a god, yet is bound as a slave to the grindstone. Since even as Hermes mocked the Lord of the Unerring Bow, so is genius mocked of the world, when it has bartered the herds and the grain, and the rod that metes wealth, for the seven chords that no ear, dully mortal, can hear.

And as he looked upon this symbol of his life, the captivity and the calamity, the strength and the slavery of his existence overcame him; and for the first hour since he had been born of a woman Arslàn buried his face in his hands and wept.

He could bend great thoughts to take the shapes that he chose, as the chained god in Pheræ bound the strong kings of the desert and the forest to carry his yoke; yet, like the god, he likewise stood fettered to the mill to grind for bread.

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