Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
previous
next
page: 199

CHAPTER VI.

A VALLEY long and narrow, shut out from the rest of the living world by the ramparts of stone that rose on either side to touch the clouds; dense forests of pines, purple as night, where the erl‐king rode and the bear‐king reigned; at one end mountains, mist, and gloom, at the other end the ocean; brief days with the sun shed on a world of snow, in which the sounds of the winds and the moans of the wolves alone were heard in the solitude; long nights of marvelous magnificence with the stars of the arctic zone glowing with an unbearable lustre above a sea of phosphorescent fire; those were Arslàn’s earliest memories—those had made him what he was.

In that pine‐clothed Norwegian valley, opening to the sea, there were a few homesteads gathered together round a little wooden church, with great torrents falling above them, and a profound loneliness around; severed by more than a day’s journey from any other of the habitations of men.

There a simple idyllic life rolled slowly on through the late and lovely spring times, when the waters loosened and the seed sprouted, and the white blossoms broke above the black ground: through the short and glorious summers, when the children’s eyes saw the elves kiss the roses, and the fairies float on the sunbeam, and the maidens braided their fair hair with blue cornflowers to dance on the eve of St. John: through the long and silent winters, when an almost continual night brooded over all things, and the thunder of the ocean alone answered the war of the wind‐torn forests, and the blood‐red blaze of the northern light gleamed over a white still mountain world, and within doors, by the warm wood fire, the youths sang Scandinavian ballads, and the old people told strange Sagas, and the mothers, rocking their new‐born sons to sleep, prayed God for mercy to have on all human lives drowning at sea and frozen in the snow.

In this Alpine valley, hidden amidst stupendous walls of stone, bottomless precipices, and summits that touched the page: 200 clouds, there was a cottage even smaller and humbler than most, and closest of all to the church. It was the house of the pastor. The old man had been born there, and had lived there all the years of his life save a few that he had passed in a town as a student; and he had wedded a neighbour who, like himself, had known no other home than this one village. He was gentle, patient, simple, and full of tenderness; he worked like his people all the week through, in the open weather, amongst his fruit‐trees, his little breadth of pasturage, his herb‐garden, and his few sheep. On the seventh day he preached to the people the creed that he himself believed in with all the fond, unquestioning, implicit faith of the young children who lifted to him their round wandering eyes.

He was good; he was old: in his simple needs and his undoubting hopes he has happy; all the living things of his little world loved him, and he loved them. And fate lit on him to torture him, as it is its pleasure to torture the innocent.

It sent him a daughter who was fair to sight, and had a voice like music; a form lithe and white, with hair of gold, and eyes like her own planets. She had never seen any other spot save her own valley; but she had the old Berserker blood in her veins, and she was restless; the sea tempted her with an intense power; she desired passionately, without knowing what she desired.

The simple pastoral work, the peaceful household labours, the girls’ garland of alpine flowers, the youths’ singing in the brief rose twilight, the saga told the thousandth time around the lamp in the deep mid‐winter silence; these things would not suffice for her. The old Scandinavian madness was her veins. And one day the sea tempted her too utterly; beyond her strength,—as a lover, after a thousand entreaties, one day tempts a woman, and one day finds her weak.

The sea vanquished her, and she went—whither?

They hardly knew: to these old people the world that lay behind their mountain fortress was a blank. It might be a paradise; it might be a prison. They could not tell. They suffered their sorrow meekly; they never cursed her; they did not even curse their fate because they had given life to a woman child.

page: 201

After awhile they heard of her.

She wrote them tender and glowing words; she was well, she was proud, she was glad, she had found those who told her that she had a voice which was as a gift of gold, and that she might sing in triumph to the nations. Such tidings came from time to time; brief welcome words, first teeming with hope, then delirious with triumph, yet ever ending with a short sad sigh of conscience, a prayer for pardon—pardon for what? The letters never said: perhaps only for the sin of desertion.

The slow salt tears of age fell on these glowing pages in which the heart of a young, vain‐glorious, tender creature stamped itself; but the old people never spoke of them to others. “She is happy, it does not matter for us.” This was all they said, yet this gentle patience was a martyrdom too sharp to last; when that year closed the mother was in her grave, and the old man left alone.

The long silent winter came, locking the valley within its fortress of ice, severing it from all the rest of the breathing human world; and the letters ceased. He would not let them say that she had forgotten; he chose to think that the severance was due to the wall of snow which was built up between them rather than to any division of her ingratitude and oblivion.

The sweet sudden Norwegian spring came, all the white and golden flowers breaking up from the hard crust of the soil, and all the loosened waters rushing with a shout of liberty to join the sea.

The summer followed with the red mountain roses blossoming by the brooks, and the green mountain grasses blowing in the wind, with the music of the herd‐bells ringing down the passes, and the sound of the fife and of the reed‐pipe calling the maidens to the dance.

In the midst of the summer, one night, when all the stars were shining above the valley, and all the children slept under the roofs with the swallows, and not a soul was stirring, save where here and there a lover watched a light glow in some lattice underneath the eaves, a half‐dead woman dragged herself feebly under the lime‐tree shadows of the pastor’s house, and struck with a faint cry upon the door and fell at her father’s feet, broken and senseless. Before the full day had dawned she had given birth to a page: 202 male child; and died as her son’s eyes opened to the morning light.

He inherited no name, and they called him after his grandsire, Arslàn.

When his dead daughter lay stretched before him in the sunlight, with her white large limbs folded to rest, and her noble fair face calm as a mask of marble, the old pastor knew little—nothing—of what her life through these two brief years had been. Her lips had scarcely breathed a word since she had fallen senseless on his threshold. That she had triumph he knew; that she had fallen into dire necessities he saw.

Whether she had surrendered art for the sake of love, or whether she had lost the public favour by some caprice of the public, whether she had been eminent or obscure in her career, whether it had abandoned her or she had abandoned it, he could not tell, and he knew too little of the world to be able to learn.

That she had travelled her weary way homeward to her native mountains that her son might not perish among strangers, he knew; but no more. Nor was more ever known by any living soul. In life there are so many histories which are like broken boughs that strew the ground after a storm, snapped short at either end, so that none know the crown of them nor the root.

The child whom she had left grew in goodliness and strength and stature, until the people said that he was like that child‐king, whom their hero Frithiof raised upon his buckler above the multitude; and who was not afraid, but boldly gripped the brazen shield, and smiled fearlessly at the noonday sun.

He had his mother’s golden Scandinavian beauty; the beauty of sculpture, white as the snow, of unusual height, and largely moulded; and his free life amidst the ice‐fields and the pinewoods, and on the wild northern seas, developed both health and strength to their uttermost perfection.

The people admired and wondered at him; they did not love him. The lad was cold, dauntless, silent; he repelled their sympathies and disdained their pastimes. He chose rather to be by himself than with them. He was never cruel; but he was never tender; and when he did speak he page: 203 spoke with a sort of eloquent scorn and caustic imagery that seemed to them extraordinary in one so young. But his grandfather loved him greatly; and reared him tenderly and wisely; and braced him with a scholar’s lore and with a mountaineer’s exposure, so that both brain and body had their due.

He was a simple childlike broken old man; but in this vigorous youth that unfolded itself beside him his age seemed to strike fresh root, and he had wisdom and skill enough to guide its development justly. The desire of his soul was that his grandson should succeed him in the spiritual charge of that tranquil valley, and thus escaped the dire perils of the cities in which the mother’s life had been caught and consumed like a moth’s in flame. But Arslàn’s eyes looked ever across the ocean with that look in them which had been in his mother’s, and when the old man spoke of this holy and peaceful future, he was silent.

Moreover, he—who had never beheld but the rude paintings on panels of pine that decorated the little red church under the firs and lindens,—he had the gift of art in him.

He had few and rough means only with which to make his crude and unguided essays; but the delirium of it was on him, and the peasants of his village gazed awe‐stricken and adoring before the things which he drew on every piece of pine‐wood, on every smooth breadth of sea‐worn granite, on every bare surface of lime‐washed wall that he could find at liberty for his usage.

Whey they asked him what, in his manhood, he would do, he said little. “I will never leave the old man,” he made answer; and he kept his word. Up to his twentieth year he never quitted the valley. He studied deeply, after his own manner, but nearly all his days were passed in the open air alone; in the pure cold air of the highest mountain summits, amidst the thunder of the furious torrents; in the black recesses of lonely forests, where none, save the wolf and the bear, wandered with him; or away on the vast expanse of the sea, where the storm drove the great arctic waves like scourged sheep, and the huge breakers seized the shore as a panther its prey.

On such a world as this, and in the marvelous nights of the north, his mind fed itself and gained its full powers. The feeble life of the old man held him to this lonely page: 204 valley that seemed filled with the coldness, the mystery, the unutterable terror and majesty of the arctic pole, to which it looked; but, unknown to him, it thus fettered him likewise where alone the genius in him could take its full shape and full stature.

Unknown to him, in these years it took the depth, the strength, the patience, the melancholy, the virility of the North; took these never to be lost again.

In the twentieth winter of his life an avalanche engulfed the pastor’s house, and the little church by which it stood; covering both beneath a mountain of earth and snow and rock and riven trees. Some of the timbers withstood the shock, and the roof remained standing uncrushed above their heads. The avalanche fell some little time after midnight: there were only present in the dwelling himself, the old man, and a serving woman.

The woman was killed on her bed by the fall of a beam upon her; he and the pastor still lived: lived in perpetual darkness without food or fuel, or any ray of light.

The wooden clock stood erect, uninjured; they could hear the hours go by in slow succession. The old man was peaceful and even cheerful; praising God often; and praying that help might come to this beloved one. But his strength could not hold out against the icy cold, the long hunger, the dreadful blank around. He died ere the first day had wholly gone by, at even‐song; saying still that he was content, and still praising God who had rewarded his innocence with shame, and recompensed his service with agony. For two more days and nights, Arslàn remained in his living tomb, enshrouded in eternal gloom, alone with the body of his grandfather, stretching out his hands ever and again to meet the icy touch rather than be without companionship.

On the morning of the third day the people of the village, who had laboured ceaselessly, reached him; and he was saved.

As soon as the spring broke, he left the valley and passed over the mountains, seeking a new world. His old familiar home had become hateful to him; he had no tie to it save two low graves, still snow‐covered underneath a knot of tall stone‐pines; the Norse passion of wandering was in his veins as it had been in his mother’s before him; he mutely page: 205 desired freedom, colour, knowledge, art, fame, as she had desired them, and he went: turning his face from that lowly green nest lying like a lark’s between the hills.

He did not go as youth mostly goes, blind with a divine dream of triumph: he went, consciously, to a bitter combat as the sea kings of old, whose blood ran in his veins, and whose strength was in his limbs, had gone to war, setting their prow hard against the sharp salt waves and in the teeth of an adverse wind.

He was not without money. The pastor, indeed, had died almost penniless; he had been always poor, and had given the little he possessed to those still poorer. But the richest landowner in the village, the largest possessor of flocks and herds, dying childless, had bequeathed his farm and cattle to Arslàn; having loved the lad’s dead mother silently and vainly. The value of these realised by sale gave to Arslàn, when he became his own master, what, in that valley at least, was wealth; and he went without care for the future on this score into the world of men; his mind full of dreams and the beautiful myths of dead ages; his temper compounded of poetry and coldness, of enthusiasm and of scepticism; his one passion a supreme ambition, pure as snow in its instinct, but half savage in its intensity.

From that spring, when he had passed away from his birthplace as the winter snows were melting on the mountain sides, and the mountain flowers were putting forth their earliest buds under the pine boughs, until the time that he now stood solitary, starving, and hopeless before the mocking eyes of his Hermes, twelve years had run their course, and all through them he had never once again beheld his native land.

Like the Scandinavian Regner, he chose rather to perish in the folds, and by the fangs, of the snakes that devoured him than return to his country with the confession of defeat. And despite the powers that were in him, his life had been a failure, an utter failure—as yet.

In his early youth he had voyaged often, with men who went to the extreme north in search of skins and such poor trade as they could drive with Esquimaux or Koraks; he had borne their dangers and their poverty, their miseries and their famine, for sake of seeing what they saw;—the pathless oceans of the ice realm, the trailing pines alone in page: 206 a white snow world, the red moon fantastic and horrible in a sky of steel, the horned clouds of reindeer rushing through the endless night, the arch of the aurora spanning the heavens with their fire. He had passed many seasons of his boyhood in the silence, the solitude, the eternal desolation, and the mute mystery of that Arctic world, which for no man has either sympathy or story; and in a way he had loved it, and was often weary for it; in a way its spirit remained with him always; and its inexorable coldness, its pitiless indifference to men’s wants and weakness, its loneliness and its purity, and its scorn, were in all the works of his hand; blended in a strange union with the cruelty, and the voluptuousness, and the gorgeousness of colour, which gave to everything he touched the glow and the temper of the east.

Thus, what he did pleased none; being for one half the world too chill, and being for the other half too sensual.

The world had never believed in him; and he found himself in the height and maturity of his powers condemned to an absolute obscurity. Not one man in a million knew his name.

During these years he had devoted himself to the study of art with an undeviating subservience to all its tyrannies.

He had studied humanity in all its phases; he had studied form with all the rigid care that it requires; he had studied colour in almost every land that lies beneath the sun; he had studied the passions in all their deformities, as well as in all their beauties; he had spared neither himself nor others in pursuit of knowledge. He had tried most vices, he had seen all miseries, he had spared himself no spectacle, however loathsome; he had turned back from no license, however undesired, that could give him insight into empire over human raptures and affliction. Neither did he spare himself any labour however costly, however exhausting, to enrich his brain with that varied learning, that multifarious science which he held needful to every artist who dared to desire greatness.

The hireling beauty of the wanton, the splendour of the sun and sea, the charnel lore of anatomy, the secrets of dead tongues and buried nations, the horrors of the lazar wards and pest‐houses, the glories of golden deserts and purple page: 207 vineyards, the flush of love on a young girl’s cheek, the rottenness of corruption on a dead man’s limbs, the hellish riot of a brothel, the divine calm of an eastern night; all things alike he studied, without abhorrence as without delight, indifferent to all save for one end,—knowledge and art.

So entirely and undividedly did this possess him that it seemed to have left him without other passions; even as the surgeon dissects the fair lifeless body of sone beautiful dead women, regardless of loveliness or sex, intent on the secret of disease, the mystery of formation, which he seeks therein, so did he study the physical beauty of women and their mortal corruption, without other memories than those of art. He would see the veil fall from off the limbs of a creature lovely as a goddess, and would think only to himself—“How shall I render this so that on my canvas it shall live once more?”

One night, in the hot, close streets of Damascus, a man was stabbed,—a young Maronite—who lay dying in the roadway, without sign or sound, whilst his assassins fled; the silver Syrian moon shining full on his white and scarlet robe, his calm, upturned face, his lean hand knotted on the dagger he had been spared no time to use; a famished street dog smelling at his blood.

Arslàn, passing through the city, saw and paused beside him; stood still and motionless, looking down on the outstretched figure; then drew his tablets out and sketched the serene, rigid face, the flowing, blood‐soaked robes, the hungry animal mouthing at the wound. Another painter, his familiar friend, following on his steps, joined him a little later, and started from his side in horror—

“My God! what do you do there?” he cried. “Do you not see?—that man is dying!”

Arslàn looked up—“I had not thought of that,” he answered.

It was thus always with him.

He was not cruel. To animals he was humane, to women gentle, to men serene; but his art was before all things with him, and with humanity he had little sympathy; and if had passions, they had wakened no more than as the drowsy tigress wakes in the hot hush of noon, half indifferent, half lustful, to strike fiercely what comes before page: 208 her, and then, having slain, couches herself and sleeps again.

But for this absolute surrender of his life, his art had as yet recompensed him nothing.

Men did not believe in him; what he wrought saddened and terrified them; they turned aside to those who fed them on simpler and on sweeter food.

His works were great, but they were such as the public mind deems impious. They unveiled human corruption too nakedly, and they shadowed forth visions too exalted, and satires too unsparing, for them to be acceptable to the multitude. They were compounded of an idealism clear and cold as crystal, and of a reality cruel and voluptuous as love. They were penetrated with an acrid satire and an intense despair: the world caring only for a honied falsehood and a gilded gloss in every art, would have none of them.

So far these twelve long years his labour had been waste, his efforts fruitless. Those years had been costly to him in purse;—travel, study, gold flung to fallen women, sums spent on faithless friends, utter indifference to whosoever robbed him, so long as he was left in peace to pursue lofty aims and high endeavours—all these did their common work on wealth which was scanty in the press of the world, though it had appeared inexhaustible on the shores of the north sea.

His labours also were costly, and they brought him no return.

The indifference to fortune in a man of genius looks, to a man of the world, the stupor of idiotcy: from such a stupor he was shaken one day to find himself face to face with beggary.

His works were seen by few, and these few were antagonstic to them.

All ways to fame were closed to him, either by the envy of other painters, or by the apathies and the antipathies of the nations themselves. In all lands he was repulsed; he roused the jealousy of his compeers and the terror of the multitudes. They hurled against him the old worn‐out cry that the office of art was to give pleasure, not pain; and when his money was gone, so that he could no longer, at his own cost, expose his works to the public gaze, they and he were alike obliterated from the public marts; they had page: 209 always denied him fame, and they at last thrust him quickly into oblivion, and abandoned him to it without remorse, and even with contentment.

He could, indeed, with the facile power of eye and touch that he possessed, have easily purchased a temporary ease and evanescent repute, if he had given the world from his pencil those themes for which it cared, and descended to the common spheres of common art. But he refused utterly to do this. The best and greatest thing in him was his honesty to the genius wherewith he was gifted; he refused to prostitute it; he refused to do other than to tell the truth as he saw it.

“This man blasphemes; this man is immoral,” his enemies had always hooted against him. It is what the world always says of those who utter unwelcome truths in its unwilling ears.

So the words of the old Skald by his own northern seashores came to pass; and at length, for the sake of art, it came to this, that he perished for want of bread.

For seven days he had been without food, except the winter berries which he broke off the trees without, and such handfuls of wheat as fell through the disjointed timbers of the ceiling, for whose possession he disputed with the rats.

The sheer absolute poverty, which leaves the man whom it has seized without so much as even a crust wherewith to break his fast, is commoner than the world in general ever dreams. For he was now so poor that for many months he had been unable to buy fresh canvas on which to work, and had been driven to chalk the outlines of the innumerable fancies that pursued him upon the bare smooth grey stone walls of the old granary in which he dwelt.

He let his life go silently away without complaint, and without effort, because effort had been so long unavailing, that he had discarded it in a contemptuous despair.

He accepted his fate, seeing nothing strange in it, and nothing pitiable; since many better men than he had borne the like. He could not have altered it without beggary or theft, and he thought either of these worse than itself.

There were hecatombs hetacombs of grain, bursting their sacks, in the lofts above; but when, once on each eighth day, the page: 210 maltster owning them sent his men to fetch some from the store, Arslàn let the boat be moored against the wall, be filled with barley, and be pushed away again down the current, wihtout saying once to the rowers, “Wait; I starve!”

And yet, though like a miser, amidst his gold, his body starved amidst the noble shapes and the great thoughts that his brain conceived and his hand called into substance, he never once dreamed of abandoning for any other the career to which he had dedicated himself from the earliest days that his boyish eyes had watched the fires of the Arctic lights glow above the winter seas.

Art was to him as mother, brethren, mistress, offspring, religion—all that other men hold dear. He had none of these, he desired none of them; and his genius sufficed to him in their stead.

It was an intense and reckless egotism, made alike cruel and sublime by its intensity and purity, like the egotism of a mother in her child. To it, as the mother to her child, he would have sacrificed every living creature; but to it also, like her, he would have sacrificed his very existence as unhesitatingly. But it was an egotism which, though merciless in its tyranny, was as pure as snow in its impersonality; it was untainted by any grain of avarice, of vanity, of selfish desire; it was independent of all sympathy; it was simply and intensely the passion for immortality:—that sublime selfishness, that superb madness, of all great minds.

Art had taken him for its own, as Demeter, in the days of her desolation, took the child Demophoon to nurture him as her own on the food of gods, and to plunge him through the flames of a fire that would give him immortal life. As the pusillanimous and sordid fears of the mortal mother lost to the child for evermore the possession of Olympian joys and of perpetual youth, so did the craven and earthly cares of bodily needs hold the artist back from the radiance of the life of the soul, and drag him from the purifying fires. Yet he had not been utterly discouraged; he strove against the Metanira of circumstance; he did his best to struggle free from the mortal bonds that bound him; and, as the child Demophoon mourned for the great goddess that had nurtured him, refusing to be comforted, so did he turn page: 211 form the base consolations of the sense and the appetites, and beheld ever before his sight the ineffable majesty of that Mater Dolorosa who once and for ever had anointed him as her own.

Even now as the strength returned to his limbs and the warmth to his veins, the old passion, the old worship, returned to him.

The momentary weakness which had assailed him passed away. He shook himself with a bitter impatient scorn for the feebleness into which he had been betrayed; and glanced around him still with a dull wonder as to the strange chances which the past night had brought. He was incredulous still; he thought that his fancy, heated by long fasting, might have cheated him; that he must have dreamed; and that the food and fuel which he saw must surely have been his own.

Yet reflection told him that this could not be; he remembered that for several weeks his last coin had been spent; that he had been glad to gather the birds’ winter berries to crush beneath his teeth, and gather the dropped corn from the floor to quiet the calm of hunger; that for many a day there had been no fire on the hearth, and that only a frame which long sunless northern winters had braced to such hardihood in early youth, had enabled him to resist and endure the cold. Therefore, it must be charity. Charity!—as the hateful truth came home to him, he met the eyes of the white, slender, winged Hermes: eyes that from out that colourless and smiling face seemed to mock him with a cruel contempt.

His was the old, old story—the rod of wealth bartered for the empty shell that gave forth music.

Hermes seemed to know it and to jeer him.

Hermes, the mischief‐monger, and the trickster of men; the inventive god who spent his days in cajoling his brethren, and his nights in the mockery of mortals; the messenger of heaven who gave Pandora to mankind; Hermes, the eternal type of unscrupulous Success, seemed to have voice and cry to him:—“Oh fool, fool, fool! who listens for the music of the spheres, and disdains the only melody that men have ears to hear—the melody of gold!”

Arslàn turned from the great cartoon of the gods in page: 212 Pheræ, and went out into the daylight, and stripped and plunged into the cold and turbulent stream. Its chilliness and the combat of its current braced his nerves and cleared his brain.

When he was clad, he left the grain‐tower with the white forms of its gods upon its walls, and walk slowly down the banks of the river. Since life had been forced back upon him he knew that it was incumbent upon his manhood to support it by the toil of his hands if men would not accept the labour of his brain.

Before, he had been too absorbed in his pursuit, too devoted to it, body and soul, to seek to sustain existence by sheer manual exertion which was the only thing that he had left untried for self‐maintenance. In a manner too he was too proud; not too proud to labour, but too proud to easily endure to lay bare his needs to the knowledge of others. But now, human charity must have saved him; a charity which he hated as the foulest insult of his life; and he had no chance save to accept it like a beggar bereft of all shame, or to seek such work as would give him his daily bread.

So he went; feebly, for he was still weak from the length of his famine.

The country was well known to him, but the people not at all. He had come by hazard on the old ruin where he dwelt, and had stayed there full a year.

These serene blue skies, these pale mists, these corn‐clad slopes, these fields of pleasant of plenteous abundance, these quiet homesteads, these fruit‐harvests of this Norman plain were in a contrast intense, yet soothing, to all that his life had known. These old quaint cities, these little villages that seemed always hushed with the sound of bells, these quiet streams on which the calm sunlight slept so peacefully, these green and golden lands of plenty that stretched away to the dim grey distant sea,—all these had had a certain charm for him.

He had abided with them, partly because amidst them it seemed possible to live on a handful of wheat and a draught of water, unnoticed and unpitied, partly because, having come hither on foot through many lands and by long hardships, he had paused there weary and incapable of farther effort.

page: 213

Whilst the little gold he had had on him had lasted he had painted innumerable transcripts of the ancient buildings, and of its summer and autumnal landscapes. And of late—through the bitter winter—of late it had seemed to him that it was as well to die here as elsewhere.

When a man knows that his dead limbs will be huddled into the common ditch of the poor, the nameless, and the unclaimed, and that his dead brain will only serve for soil to feed some little rank wayside poisonous weed, it will seldom seem of much moment in what earth the ditch be dug, by what feet the sward be trod.

He went on his way seeking work; he did not care what, he asked for any that might serve to use such strength as hunger had left in him, and to give him his daily bread. But this is a great thing to demand in the world, and so he found it.

They repulsed him everywhere.

They had their own people in plenty, they had their sturdy, tough, weather‐beaten women, who laboured all day in rain, or snow, or storm, for a pittance, and they had these in larger numbers than their field‐work needed. They looked at him askance; this man with the eyes of Arctic blue and the grave gestures of a king, who only asked to labour as the lowest amongst them. He was a stranger to them; he did not speak their tongue with their accent; he looked, with that white beauty and that lofty stature, as though he could crush them in the hollow of his hand.

They would have none of him.

“He brings misfortune!” they said amongst themselves; and they would have none of him.

He had an evil name with them. They said at eventide by their wood‐fires that strange things had been seen since he had come to the granary by the river.

Once he had painted, from the pretty face of a stonecutter’s little fair son, a study of the wondrous child Zagreus gazing in the fatal mirror; the child was laughing, and happy, and healthful at noon, crowned with carnations and river lilies, and by sunset he was dead—dead like the flowers that were still amongst his curls.

Once a girl had hired herself as a model to him for an Egyptian wanton, half a singer and half a gipsy—handsome, lithe, fantastic, voluptuous: the very night she left page: 214 the granary she was drowned in crossing a wooden bridge of the river, which gave way under the heavy tramp of the fantoccini player who accompanied her.

Once he had sketched, for the corner of an oriental study, a rare‐plumaged bird of the south, which was the idol of a water‐carrier of the district, and the wonder of all the children round: and from that date the bird had sickened and drooped, and lost its colours, and pined until it died.

The boy’s death had been from a sudden seizure of one of the many ills of infancy; the dancing girl’s had come from a common accident due to the rottenness of old worn water‐soaked timber; the mocking‐bird’s had arisen from the cruelty of captivity and the chills of northern winds; all had been the result of simple accident and natural circumstance. But they had sufficed to fill with horror the minds of a peasantry always bigoted and strongly prejudiced against every stranger; and it became to them a matter of implicit credence that whatsoever living thing should be painted by the artist Arslàn would assuredly never survive to see the rising of the morrow’s sun.

In consequence, for leagues around they shunned him; not man, nor woman, nor child would sit to him as models; and now, when he sought the wage of a daily labour amongst them, he was everywhere repulsed. He had long repulsed human sympathy, and in its turn it repulsed him.

At last he turned and retraced his steps, baffled and wearied; his early habits had made him familiar with all manner of agricultural toil; he would have done the task of the sower, the herdsman, the hewer of wood, or the charcoal‐burner; but they would none of them believe this of one with his glance and his aspect; and solicitation was new to his lips and bitter there as gall.

He took his way back along the line of the river; the beauty of the dawn had gone, the day was only now chilly, heavy, with a rank moisture from the steaming soil. Broken boughs and uprooted bushes were floating on the turgid water, and over all the land there hung a sullen fog.

The pressure of the air, the humidity, the colourless stillness that reigned throughout, weighed on lungs which for a score of years had only breathed the pure strong rarified air page: 215 of the north; he longed with a sudden passion to be once more amidst his native mountains under the clear steel‐like skies, and beside the rush of the vast wild seas. Were it only to die as he looked on them, it were better to die there than here.

He longed, as men in deserts thirst for drink, for one breath of the strong salt air of the north, one sight of the bright keen sea‐born sun as it leapt at dawn from the waters.

The crisp cold nights, the heavens which shone as steel, the forests filled with the cry of the wolves, the mountains which the ocean ceaselessly assailed, the mighty waves which marched erect like armies, the bitter Arctic wind which like a sabre cleft the darkness; all these came back to him, beloved and beautiful in all their cruelty, desired by him, with a sick longing for their freshness, for their fierceness, for their freedom.

As he dragged his tired limbs thought the grasses and looked out upon the sullen stream that flowed beside him, an oar struck the water, a flat black boat drifted beneath the bank, a wild swan disturbed rose with a hiss from the sedges.

The boat was laden with grain; there was only one rower in it, who steered by a string wound round her foot.

She did not lift her face as she went by him; but her bent brow and her bosom grew red, and she cut the water with a swifter, sharper stroke; her features were turned from him by that movement of her head, but he saw the eastern outline of the cheek and chin, the embrowned velvet of the skin, the half‐bare beauty of the heaving chest and supple spine bent back in the action of the oars, the long slender and arched shape of the naked foot, round which the cord was twined;—their contour and their colour struck him with a sudden surprise.

He had seen such oftentimes, eastwards, on the banks of golden rivers, treading, with such feet as these, the sands that were the dust of countless nations; bearing, on such shoulders as these earthen water‐vases that might have served the feasts of Pharaohs; showing such limbs as these against the curled palm branches and the deep blue sky upon the desert’s edge.

But here!—a face of Asia amongst the corn‐lands of page: 216 Northern France? It seemed to him strange; he looked after her with wonder.

The boat went on down the stream without any pause; the sculls cleaving the heavy tide with regular and resolute monotony; the golden piles of the grain and the brown form of the bending figure soon hidden in the clouds of river‐mist.

He watched her, only seeing a beggar‐girl rowing a skiff full of corn down a sluggish stream. There was nothing to tell him that he was looking upon the saviour of his body from the thralls of death; if there had been, in his mood, then, he would have cursed her.

The boat glided into the fog which closed behind it; a flock of water‐birds swam out from the rushes and darted at some floating kernels of wheat that had fallen over the vessel’s side; they fought and hissed, and flapped and pecked amongst themselves over the chance plunder; a large rat stole amidst them unnoticed by them in their exultation, and seized their leader and bore him struggling and beating the air with blood‐stained wings away to a hole in the bank; a mongrel dog, prowling on the shore, hearing the wild duck’s cries, splashed into the sedges, and swam out and gripped the rat by the neck in bold sharp fangs, and bore both rat and bird, bleeding and dying, to the land; the owner of the mongrel, a peasant making ready the ground for colza in the low‐lying fields, snatched the duck from the dog to bear it home for his own eating, and kicked his poor beast in the ribs for having ventured to stray without leave and to do him service without permission.

“The dulcet harmony of the world’s benignant law!” thought Arslàn, as he turned aside to enter the stone archway of his own desolate dwelling. “To live one must slaughter—what life can I take?”

At that moment the setting sun pierced the heavy veil of the vapour, and glowed through the fog.

The boat, now distant, glided for a moment into the ruddy haze, and was visible; the water around it, like a lake of flame, the white steam above it, like the smoke of a sacrifice fire.

Then the sun sank, the mists gathered closely once more, all light faded, and the day was dead.

page: 217

He felt stifled and sick at heart as he returned along the reedy shore towards his dreary home. He wondered dully why his life would not end: since the world would have none of him, neither the work of his brain nor the work of his hands, it seemed that he had no place in it.

He was half resolved to lie down in the water there, amongst the reeds, and let it flow over his face and breast, and kiss him softly and coldly into the sleep of death. He had desired this many times; what held him back from its indulgence was not “the child within us that fears death,” of which Plato speaks; he had no such misgiving in him, and he believed death to be a simple rupture and end of all things, such as any man had right to seek and summon for himself; it was rather that the passion of his art was too strong in him, that the power to create was too intense in him, so that he could not willingly consign the forces and the fantasies of his brain to that annihilation to which he would, without thought or pause, have flung his body.

As he entered the haunted hall which served him as his painting‐room, he saw a fresh fire of logs upon the hearth, whose leaping flames lighted the place with cheerful colour, and he saw on the stone bench fresh food, sufficient to last several days, and a brass flagon filled with wine.

A curious emotion took possession of him as he looked. It was less surprise at the fact, for his senses told him it was the work of some charity which chose to hide itself, than it was wonder as to who, in this strange land, where none would even let him earn his daily bread, knew enough or cared enough to supply his necessities thus. And with this there arose the same intolerant bitterness of the degradation of alms, the same ungrateful hatred of the succour that seemed to class him amongst beggars, which had moved him when he had awakened with the dawn.

He felt neither tenderness nor gratitude, he was only conscious of humiliation.

There were in him a certain coldness, strength, and indifference to sympathy, which, whilst they made his greatness as an artist, made his callousness as a man. It might have been sweet to others to find themselves remembered and pitied by another at an hour when their forces were spent, their fate friendless, and their hopes all dead. But it page: 218 was not so to him, he only felt like the desert animal which, wounded, repulses every healing hand, and only seeks to die alone.

There was only one vulnerable, one tender nerve in him, and this was the instinct of his genius. He had been nurtured in hardihood, and had drawn in endurance with every breath of his native air; he would have borne physical ills without one visible pang, and would have been indifferent to all mortal suffering; but for the powers in him, for the art he adored, he had a child’s weakness, a woman’s softness.

He could not bear to die without leaving behind his life some work the world would cherish.

Call it folly, call it madness, it is both: the ivory Zeus that was to give its sculptor immortality, lives but in tradition; the bronze Athene, that was to guard the Piræus in eternal liberty, has long been levelled with the dust; yet with every age the artist still gives life for fame, still cries, “Let my body perish, but make my work immortal!”

It was this in him now which stirred his heart with a new and gentler emotion; emotion which, while half disgust, was also half gladness. The food was alms‐given, since he had not earned it, and yet—by means of this sheer bodily subsistence—it would be possible for him to keep alive those dreams, that strength, by which he still believed it in him to compel his fame from men.

He stood before the Phœbus in Pheræ, thinking; it stung him with a bitter torment; it humiliated him with a hateful burden—this debt which came he knew not whence, and which he never might be able to repay. And yet his heart was strangely moved; it seemed to him that the fate which thus wantonly, and with such curious persistence, placed life back into his hands, must needs be one that would bear no common fruit.

He opposed himself no more to it.

He bent his head and broke bread, and ate and drank of the red wine:—he did not thank God or man as he broke his fast; he only looked in the mocking eyes of Hermes, and said in his heart:—

“Since I must live, I will triumph!”

And Hermes smiled: Hermes the wise, who had bought page: 219 and sold the generations of men so long ago, in the golden age, and who knew so well how they would barter away their greatness and their gladness, and their bodies and their souls, for one sweet strain of his hollow reed‐pipe, for one sweet glance of his soulless Pandora’s eyes.

Hermes—Hermes the liar, Hermes the wise,—knew how men’s oaths were kept.

previous
next