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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 252


THE boat went on into the darkness under the willow banks, past the great Calvary, whose lanthorn was just lit and glimmered through the gloom.

She knew by heart the old familiar way; and the water was as safe to her as the broadest, straightest road at noonday. She loved it best thus; dusky: half seen; muttering on through the silence; full of the shadows of the clouds and of the boughs; black as a fresh dug grave where some ruined wall leaned over it; broken into liitle silvery gleams where it caught the light from a saint’s shrine or a smith’s forge.

By day a river is but the highway of men; it is but a public bridge betwixt the country and the town; but at night it grows mystical, silent, solitary, unreal, with the sound of the sea in its murmurings and the peace of death in its calm; at night, through its ceaseless whisperings, there always seem to arise echoes from all the voices of the drowned multitudes of the ocean whence it comes, and from all the voices of the living multitudes of the city whither it goes.

It was quite dark when she reached the landing steps; the moon was just rising above the sharp gables of the mill‐house, and a lanthorn was moving up and down behind the budded boughs as Claudis Flamma went to and fro in his wood‐yard.

At the jar of the boat against the steps he peered through the branches, and greeted her with a malignant reprimand. He timed her services to the minute; and here had been a full half‐day of the spring weather wasted, and lost to him. He drove her indoors with sharp railing and loud reproaches; not waiting for an answer, but heaping on her the bitterest terms of reviling that his tongue could gather.

In the kitchen a little low‐burning lamp lit dully the poverty and dreariness of the place, and shed its orange rays on the ill‐tempered, puckered, gloomy face of the old woman Pitchou sitting at her spindle; there was a curious odour of page: 253 sun‐dried herbs and smoke‐dried fish that made the air heavy and pungent; the great chimney yawned black and fireless; a starveling cat mewed dolorously over an empty platter; under a tawdry‐coloured print of the Flight into Egypt, there hung on a nail three dead blackbirds, shot as they sang the praises of the spring; on a dresser, beside a little white basin of holy water, there lay a grey rabbit, dead likewise, with limbs broken and bleeding from the trap in which it had writhed helpless all through the previous night.

The penury, dulness, and cruelty, the hardness, barrenness, and unloveliness of this life in which she abode had never struck her with a sense so sharp as that which now fell on her; crossing the threshold of this dreary place after the shadows of the night, the beauty of the gods, the voice of praise, the eyes of Arslàn.

She came into the room, bringing with her the cool fragrance of damp earth, wet leaves, and wild flowers; the moisture of the evening was on her clothes and hair; her bare feet sparkled with the silvery spray of dew; her eyes had the look of blindness yet of lustre that the night air lends; and on her face there was a mingling of puzzled pain and of rapturous dreaming wonder, which new thought and fresh feeling had brought there to break up its darkness into light.

The old woman, twirling a flaxen thread upon her wheel, looked askance at her, and mumbled—“like mother, like child.” The old man, catching up the lamp, held it against her face, and peered at her under his grey bent brows.

“A whole day wasted!” he swore for the twentieth time, in his teeth. “Beast! What hast thou to say for thyself?”

The old dogged ferocity gathered over her countenance, chasing away the softened perplexed radiance that had been newly awakened there.

“I say nothing,” she answered.

“Nothing! nothing!” he echoed after her. “Then we will find a way to make thee speak. Nothing!—when three of the clock should have seen thee back hither at latest, and five hours since then have gone by without account. You have spent it in brawling and pleasure—in shame and iniquity—in vice and in violence, thou creature of sin!”

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“Since you know, why ask?”

She spoke with steady contemptuous calm. She disdained to seek refuge from his fury by pleading the injuries that the townsfolk had wrought her; and of the house by the river, she would not have spoken though they had killed her. The storm of his words raged on uninterrupted.

“Five hours, five mortal hours, stolen from me, your lawful work left undone that you may riot in some secret abomination that you dare not to name. Say where you have been, what you have done, you spawn of hell, or I will wring your throat as I wring a sparrow’s!”

“I have done as I chose.”

She looked him full in the eyes as she spoke, with the look in her own that a bull’s have when he lowers his head to the charge and attack.

“As you choose! Oh‐ho! You would speak as queens speak—you—a thing less than the worm and the emmet. As you choose—you!—who have not a rag on your back, not a crust of rye bread, not a leaf of salad to eat, not a lock of hay for your bed, that is not mine—mine—mine. As you choose. You!—you thing begotten in infamy; you slave; you beggar; you sloth! You are nothing—nothing less than the blind worm that crawls in the sand. You have the devil that bred you in you, no doubt; but it shall go hard if I cannot conquer him when I bruise your body and break your will.”

As he spoke he seized her to strike her; in his hand he already gripped an oak stick that he had brought in with him from his timber‐yard, and he raised it to rain blows on her, expecting no other course than the dumb, passive, scornful submission with which she had hitherto accepted whatsoever he had chosen to do against her.

But in lieu of the creature, silent and stirless, who before had stood to receive his lashes as though her body were of bronze or wood, that felt not, a leonine and superb animal sprang up in full rebellion. She started out of his grasp, her lithe form springing from his seizure as a willow bough that has been bent to earth springs back, released, into the air.

She caught the staff in both her hands, wrenched it by a sudden gesture from him, and flung it away to the farther end of the chamber; then she turned on him as a hart turns brought to bay.

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Her supple body was erect like a young pine; her eyes flushed with a lustre he had never seen in them; the breath came hard and fast through her dilated nostrils; her mouth curled and quivered.

“Touch me again!” she cried aloud, while her voice rang full and imperious through the stillness. “Touch me again; and by the heaven and hell you prate of, I will kill you!”

So sudden was the revolt, so sure the menace, that he old man dropped his hands and stood and gazed at her aghast and staring; not recognizing the mute, patient, dog‐like thing that he had beaten at will, in this stern, fearless, splendid, terrible creature, who faced him in all the royalty of wrath, in all the passion of insurrection.

He could not tell what had altered her, what had wrought this transformation, what had changed her as by sorcery; he could not tell that what had aroused a human soul in her had been the first human voice that she had listened to in love; he could not tell that her body had grown sacred to her because a stranger had called her beautiful, and that her life for the first time had acquired a worth and dignity in her sight because one man had deemed it fair.

He could not tell; he could only see that for the first time his slave had learned somewhere, and in some wise, what freedom meant; and had escaped him. This alone he saw; and, seeing it, was startled and afraid.

She waited, watching him some moments, with cold eyes of disdain, in which a smouldering fire slept, ready to burst into an all‐devouring flame.

There was not a sound in the place; the woman spinning stopped her wheel, wondering in a half‐stupid, savage fashion; the lean cat ceased its cries; there was only the continual swish of the water in the sluices under the wall without, and the dull ticking of the old Black Forest clock, that kept a fitful measure of the days and nights in its cracked case of painted wood, high up, where the thyme, and the sage, and the onions hung among the twisted rafters.

Folle‐Farine stood still, her left hand resting on her hip, her lips curved scornfully and close, her face full of passion, which she kept as still as the dead birds hanging on the wall; whilst all the time the tawny smoky hues of the oil‐ page: 256 lamp were wavering with an odd fantastic play over her head and limbs.

Before this night, she had always taken every blow and stripe patiently, without vengeance, without effort, as she saw the mule and the dog, the horse and the ox, take theirs in their pathetic patience, in their noble fortitude. She had thought that such were her daily portion as such as was the daily bread she broke.

But now, since she had awakened with the smile of the gods upon her, now, she felt that sooner than endure again that indignity, that outrage, she would let her tyrant kill her in his hate, if so he chose, and cast her body to the mill‐stream, moaning through the trees beneath the moon; the water, at least, would bear her with it, tranquil and undefiled, beneath the old grey walls and past the eyes of Arslàn.

There was that in her look which struck dumb the mouth, and held motionless the arm, of Claudis Flamma.

Caustic, savage, hard as his own ash staff though he was, he was for the moment paralysed and unmanned. Some vague sense of shame stirred heavily in him; some vague remembrance passed over him, that, whatsoever else she might be, she had been once borne in his daughter’s bosom, and kissed by his daughter’s lips, and sent to him by a dead woman’s will, with a dead woman’s wretchedness and loneliness as her sole birth‐gifts.

He passed his hands over his eyes with a blinded gesture, staring hard at her in the dusky lamplight.

He was a strong and bitter old man, made cruel by one great agony, and groping his way savagely through a dark, hungry, superstitious, ignorant life. But in that moment he no more dared to touch her than he would have dared to tear down the leaden Christ from off its crucifix, and trample it under foot, and spit on it.

He turned away, muttering in his throat, and kicking the cat from his path, while he struck out the light with his staff.

“Get to thy den,” he said, with a curse. “We are a‐bed too late. To‐morrow I will deal with thee.”

She went without a word out of the dark kitchen and up the ladder‐like stairs, up to her lair in the roof. She said nothing; it was not in her nature to threaten twice, or twice page: 257 protest; but in her heart she knew that neither the next day, nor any other day, should that which Arslàn had called “beauty,” be stripped and struck whilst life was in her to preserve it by death from that indignity.

From the time of her earliest infancy, she had been used to bare her shoulders to the lash, and take the stripes as food and wages; she had no more thought to resist them than the brave hound, who fears no foe on earth, has to resist his master’s blows; the dull habits of a soulless bondage had been too strong on her to be lightly broken, and the resignation of the loyal beasts that were her comrades, had been the one virtue that she had learnt to follow.

But no at length she had burst her bonds, and had claimed her freedom.

She had tasted the freshness of liberty, and the blood burned like fire in her face as she remembered the patience and the shame of the years of her slavery.

There was no mirror in her little lair in the gabled eaves; all the mirror she had ever known had been that which she had shared with the water‐lilies, when together she and they had leaned over the smooth dark surface of the mill‐pond. But the moon streamed clearly through the one unshuttered window, a moon full and clear, and still cold; the spring‐tide moon, from which the pale primroses borrow those tender hues of theirs, which never warm or grow deeper, however golden be the sun that my shine.

Its colourless crescent went sailing past the little square lattice hole in the wall; masses of gorgeous cloud, white and black, swept by in a fresh west wind; the fresh breath of a spring night chased away the heat and languor of the day; the smell of all the blossoms of the spring rose up from wood and orchard; the cool, drowsy murmuring of the mill‐stream beneath was the only sound on the stillness, except when now and then there came the wild cry of a mating owl.

The moonbeams fell about her where she stood; and she looked down on her smooth skin, her glistening shoulders, her lustrous and abundant hair, on which the wavering light played and undulated. The most delicious gladness that a woman’s life can know was in tumult in her, conflicting with the new and deadly sense of shame and ignorance. She learned that she was beautiful, at the same time that page: 258 she awoke to the knowledge of her dumb, lifeless, slavish inferiority to all other human beings.

“Beautiful!” she muttered to herself, “only as a poppy as a snake, as a night moth are beautiful—beautiful—and without fragrance, or sweetness, or worth!”

And her heart was heavy, even amidst all its pleasure and triumph, heavy with a sense of utter ignorance and utter worthlessness.

The poppy was snapped asunder as a weed, the snake was shunned and cursed for his poison, the night moth was killed because his nature had made him dwell in the darkness; none of the three might have any fault in truth in them; all of the three might have only the livery of evil, and no more; might be innocent, and ask only to breathe and live for a little brief space in their world, which men called God’s world.

Yet were they condemned by men, and slain, being what they were, although God made them.

Even so she felt, without reasoning, had it been, and would it be with herself.