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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 258

CHAPTER IV.

IN the room below, the old Norman woman who did not fear her taskmaster, unbarred the shutter to let the moon shine in the room, and by its light put away her wheel and work, and cut a halved lettuce up upon a platter, with some dry bread, and ate them for her supper.

The old man knelt down before the leaden image, and joined his knotted hands, and prayed in a low, fierce, eager voice, while the heavy pendulum of the clock swung wearily to and fro.

The clock kept fitful and uncertain time; it had been so long imprisoned in the gloom there among the beams and cobwebs, and in this place life was so dull, so colourless, so torpid, that it seemed to have forgotten how time truly went, and to wake up now and then with a shudder of remembrance, in which its works ran madly down.

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The old woman ended her supper, munching the lettuce‐leaves thirstily in her toothless mouth, and not casting so much as a crumb of the crusts to the cat, who pitifully watched, and mutely implored, with great ravenous amber‐circled eyes. Then she took her stick and crept out of the kitchen, her wooden shoes clacking loud on the bare red bricks.

“Prayer did little to keep holy the other one,” she muttered; “unless, indeed, the devil heard and answered.”

But Claudis Flamma for all that prayed on, entreating the mercy and guidance of heaven, whilst the gore dripped from the dead rabbit, and the silent song birds hung stiff upon the nail.

“Thou hast a good labourer,” said the old woman, Pitchou, with curt significance, to her master, meeting him in the raw of the dawn, on the morrow, as he drew the bolts from his house‐door. “Take heed that thou dost not drive her away, Flamma. One may beat a saddled mule safely, but hardly so a wolf’s cub.”

She passed out of the door as she spoke with mop and pail to wash down the paved court outside; but her words abode with her master.

He meddled no more with the wolf’s club.

When Folle‐Farine came down the stairs in the crisp, cool, sweet smelling spring morning that was breaking through the mists over the land and water, he motioned to her to break her fast with the cold porridge left from overnight, and looking at her from under his bent brows with a glance that had some apprehension underneath its anger, apportioned her a task for the early day with a few bitter words of command; but he molested her no farther, nor referred ever so faintly to the scene of the past night.

She ate her poor and tasteless meal in silence, and set about her appointed labour without protest. So long as she should eat his bread, so long, she said to herself, would she serve him. Thus much the pride and honesty of her nature taught her was his due.

He watched her furtively under his shaggy eyebrows. His instinct told him that this nameless, dumb, captive, desert animal, which he had bound as a beast of burden to his millwheels, had in some manner learned her strength, and would not long remain content to be thus yoked and page: 260 driven. He had blinded her with the blindness of ignorance, and goaded her with the good of ignominy; but for all that, some way her bandaged eyes had sought and found the light, some way her numbed hide had thrilled and swerved beneath the barb.

“She also is a saint; let God take her!” said the old man to himself in savage irony, as he toiled amongst his mill gear and his sacks.

His heart was ever sore and in agony because his God had cheated him, letting him hold as purest and holiest among women the daughter who had betrayed him. In his way he prayed still; but chiefly his prayer was a passionate upbraiding, a cynical reproach. She—his beloved, his marvel, his choicest of maidens, his fairest and coldest of virgins,—had escaped him and duped him, and been a thing of passion and of foulness, of treachery and of lust, all the while that he had worshipped her. Therefore he hated every breathing thing; therefore he slew the birds in air song, the insects in their summer bravery, the lamb in its gambols, the rabbit in its play amidst the primroses. Therefore he cried to the God whom he still believed in, “Thou lettest that which was pure escape me to be defiled and be slaughtered, and now Thou lettest that which is vile escape me to become beautiful and free and strong!”

And now and then, in this woe of his which was so pitiful and yet so brutal, he glanced at her where she laboured amongst the unbudded vines and leafless fruit trees, and whetted a sickle on the whirling grindstone, and felt its edge, and thought to himself, “She was devil begotten. Would it not be well once and for all to rid men of her?” For, he reasoned, being thus conceived in infamy and branded from her birth upward, how should she be ever otherwise than to men a curse?

Where she went at her labours, to and fro amongst the bushes and by the glancing water, she saw the steel hook and caught his sideways gaze, and read his meditation.

She laughed, and did not fear.

Only she thought, “He shall not do it till I have been back there.”

Before the day was done, thither she went.

He had kept her close since the sunrise.

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Not sending her out on any of the errands to and fro the country, which had a certain pleasure to her, because she gained by them liberty and air, and the contentment of swift movement against fresh blowing winds. Nor did her send her to the town. He employed her through ten whole hours in out‐door garden labour, and in fetching and carrying from his yard to his lofts, always within sight of his own quick eye, and within call of his harsh voice.

She did not revolt. She did what he bade her do swiftly and well. There was no fault to find in any of her labours.

When the last sack was carried, the last sod turned, the last burden borne, the sun was sinking, he bade her roughly go indoors and winnow last year’s wheat in the store chambers till he should bid her cease.

She came and stood before him, her eyes very quiet in their look of patient strength.

“I have worked from daybreak through to sunset,” she said, slowly to him. “It is enough for man and beast. The rest I claim.”

Before he could reply she had leaped the low stone wall that parted the timber‐yard from the orchard, and was out of sight, flying far and fast through the twilight of the boughs.

He muttered a curse, and let her go. His head drooped on his breast, his hands worked restlessly on the stone coping of the wall, his withered lips muttered in wrath.

“There is hell in her,” he said to himself. “Let her go to her rightful home. There is one thing—”

“There is one thing?” echoed the old woman, hanging washed linen out to dry on the boughs of the half‐bloomed almond‐shrubs.

He gave a dreary, greed, miser’s chuckle.

“One thing. I have made the devil work for me hard and well ten whole years through!”

“The devil!” mumbled the woman Pitchou, in contemptuous iteration. “Dost thou think the devil was ever such a fool as to work for thy wage of blows and of black bread? Why, he rules the world, they say! And how should he rule unless he paid his people well!”

Folle‐Farine fled on, through the calm woodlands, through the pastures where the sleek herds dreamed their days away, page: 262 through the young wheat and the springing colza, and the little fields all bright with promise of the spring, and all the sunset’s wealth of golden light.

The league was but as a step to her, trained as her muscles were to speed and strength until her feet were fleet as are the doe’s. When she had gained her goal then only she paused, stricken with a sudden shyness and terror of what she hardly knew.

An instinct, rather than a thought, turned her towards a little grass‐hidden pool behind the granary, whose water, never stirred save by a pigeon’s rosy foot, or by a timid plover’s beak, was motionless and clear as any mirror.

Instinct, rather than thought, bent her head over it, and taught her eyes to seek her own reflection. It had a certain beauty that fascinated wonder in it to her with a curious indefinable attraction. For the first time in her life she had thought of it, and done such slight things as she could to make it greater. They were but few,—linen a little whiter and less coarse—the dust shaken from her scarlet sash; her bronze‐hued hair burnished to richer darkness; a knot of wild narcissi in her bosom gathered with the dew on them as she came through the wood.

This was all; yet this was something; something that showed the dawn of human impulses, of womanly desires. As she looked, she blushed for her own foolishness; and, with a quick hand, cast the white wood flowers into the centre of the pool. It seemed to her now, though only a moment earlier she had gathered them, so senseless and so idle to have decked herself with their borrowed loveliness. As if for such things as these he cared!

Then, slowly, and with her head sunk, she entered his dwelling‐place.

Arslàn stood with his face turned from her, bending down over a trestle of wood.

He did not hear her as she approached; she drew quite close to him and looked where she saw that he looked; down on the wooden bench. What she saw were a long falling stream of light hued hair, a grey still face, closed eyes, and naked limbs, which did not stir save when his hand moved them a little in their posture, and which then dropped from his hold like lead.

She did not shudder nor exclaim; she only looked with page: 263 quiet and incurious eyes. In this life of the poor such a sight has neither novelty nor terror.

It did not even seem strange to her to see it in such a place. He started slightly as he grew sensible of her presence, and turned, and threw a black cloth over the trestle.

“Do not look there,” he said to her. “I had forgotten you. Otherwise—”

“I have looked there. It is only a dead woman.”

“Only! What makes you say that?”

“I do not know. There are many—are there not?”

He looked at her in surprise seeing that this utter lack of interest or curiosity was true and not assumed; that awe, and reverence, and dread, and all emotions which rise in human hearts before the sight or memory of death were wholly absent from her.

“There are many indeed,” he made answer, slowly. “Just there is the toughest problem—it is the insect life of the world; it is the clouds of human ephemeræ, begotten one summer day to die the next; it is the millions on millions of men and women born, as it were, only to be choked by the reek of cities, and then fade out to nothing; it is the numbers that kill one’s dream of immortality!”

She looked wearily up at him, not comprehending, and, indeed, he had spoken to himself and not to her; she lifted up one corner of the cere cloth and gazed a little while at the dead face, the face of a girl young, and in a slight soft youthful manner, fair.

“It is Fortis, the rag‐picker’s daughter,” she said, indifferently, and dropt back the sheltering cloth. She did not know what nor why she envied, and yet she was jealous of this white dead thing that abode there so peacefully and so happily with the caress of his touch on its calm limbs.

“Yes,” he answered her. “It is his daughter. She died twenty hours ago,—of low fever, they say—famine, no doubt.”

“Why do you have her here?”

She felt no sorrow for the dead girl; the girl had mocked and jibed her many a time as a dark witch devil‐born; she only felt a jealous and restless hatred of her intrusion here.

“The dead sit to me often,” he said, with a certain smile that had sadness and yet coldness in it.

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“Why?”

“That they may tell me the secrets of life.”

“Do they tell them?”

“A few;—most they keep. See,—I paint death; I must watch it to paint it. It is dreary work, you think? It is not so to me. The surgeon seeks his kind of truth; I seek mine. The man Fortis came to me on the river side last night. He said to me, ‘You like studying the dead, they say; have my dead for a copper coin. I am starving;—and it cannot hurt her.’ So I gave him the coin—though I am as poor as he—and I took the dead woman. Why do you look like that? It is nothing to you; the girl shall go to her grave when I have done with her.

She bent her head in assent. It was nothing to her; and yet it filled her with a cruel feverish jealousy, it weighed on her with a curious pain.

She did not care for the body lying there—it had been but the other day that the dead girl had shot her lips out at her in mockery and called her names from a balcony in an old ruined house as the boat drifted past it;—but there passed over her a dreary shuddering remembrance that she, likewise, might one day lie thus before him and be no more to him than this. The people said that he who studied death, brought death.

The old wistful longing that had moved her, when Marcellin had died, to lay her down in the cool water and let it take her to long sleep and to complete forgetfulness, returned to her again. Since the dead were of value to him, best, she thought, be of them, and lie here in that dumb still serenity, caressed by his touch and his regard. For, in a manner, she was jealous of this woman, as of some living rival who had, in her absence, filled her place and been of use to him and escaped his thought.

Any ghastliness or inhumanity in this search of his for the truth of his art amidst the frozen limbs and rigid muscles of a corpse, never occurred to her. To her he was like a deity; to her these poor weak shreds of broken human lives, these fragile empty vessels, whose wine of life had been spilled like water that runs to waste, seemed beyond measurement to be exalted when deemed by him of value.

She would have thought no more of grudging them in page: 265 his employ and in his service than priests of Isis or of Eleusis would have begrudged the sacrificed lives of the beasts and birds that smoked upon their temple altars. To die at his will and be of use to him;—this seemed to her the most supreme glory fate could hold; and she envied the rag‐picker’s daughter lying there in such calm content.

“Why do you look so much at her?” he said at length. “I shall do her no harm; if I did, what would she know?”

“I was not thinking of her,” she answered slowly, with a certain perplexed pain upon her face. “I was thinking I might be of more use to you if I were dead! You must not kill me, because men would hurt you for that; but if you wish, I will kill myself to‐night. I have often thought of it lately.”

He started at the strangeness and suddenness of the words spoken steadily and with perfect sincerity and simplicity in the dialect of the district, with no sense in their speaker of anything unusual being offered in them. His eyes tried to search the expression of her face with greater interest and curiosity than they had ever done; and they gained from their study but little.

For the innumerable emotions awakening in her were only dimly shadowed there, and had in them the confusion of all imperfect expressions. He could not tell whether here there was a great soul struggling through the bonds of an intense ignorance and stupefaction, or whether there were only before him an animal perfect, in its physical development, but mindless as any clod of earth.

He did not know how to answer her.

“Why should you think of death?” he said at last. “Is your life so bitter to you?”

She stared at him.

“Is a beaten dog’s bitter? Or is a goaded ox’s sweet?”

“But you are so young,—and you are handsome, and a woman?”

She laughed a little.

“A woman! Marcellin said that.”

“Well! What is there strange in saying it?”

She pointed to the corpse which the last sun‐rays were brightening, till the limbs were as alabaster and the hair was as gold.

“That was a woman—a creature that is white and rose, page: 266 and has yellow hair and laughs in the faces of men, and has a mother that kisses her lips, and sees the children come to play at her knees. I am not one. I am a devil, " they say .” ,

His mouth smiled with a touch of sardonic humour, whose acrimony and whose irony escaped her.

“What have you done so good, or so great, that your world should call you so?”

Her eyes clouded and lightened alternately.

“You do not believe that I am a devil?”

“How should I tell? If you covet the title claim it,—you have a right,—you are a woman!”

“Always a woman!” she muttered with disappointment and with impatience.

“Always a woman,” he echoed as he pointed to the god Hermes. “And there is your creator.”

He!

She looked rapidly and wistfully at the white‐winged god.

“Yes. He made Woman; for he made her mind out of treachery and her words out of empty wind. Hephæstus made her heart, fusing for it brass and iron. Their work has worn well. It has not changed in all these ages!—But what is your history? Go and lie yonder, where you were last night, and tell me your story while I work.”

She obeyed him and told him what she knew; lying there, where he had motioned her, in the shadow under the figures of the three grandsons of Chaos. He listened, and wrought on at her likeness.

The story, as she told it in her curt imperfect words, was plain enough to him, though to herself obscure. It had in some little measure a likeness to his own.

It awakened a certain compassion for her in his heart, which was rarely moved to anything like pity. For to him nature was so much and man so little, the one so majestic and so exhaustless, the other so small and so ephemeral, that human wants and human woes touched him but very slightly. His own, even at their darkest, moved him rather to self‐contempt than to self‐compassion, for these were evils of the body and of the senses.

As a boy he had had no ear to the wail of the frozen and famishing people wandering homeless over the waste of drifted snow, where but the night before a village had nestled in the mountain hollow; all his senses had been page: 267 given in a trance of awe and rapture to the voices of the great winds sweeping down from the heights through the pine‐forests, and of the furious seas below, gnashing and raging on the wreck‐strewn sand. It was with these last that he had had kinship and communion, these endured always; but for the men they slew, what were they more in the great sum of time than forest‐leaves or ocean driftwood?

And, indeed, to those who are alive to the nameless, universal, eternal soul which breathes in all the grasses of the fields, and beams in the eyes of all creatures of earth and air, and throbs in the living light of palpitating stars, and thrills through the young sap of forest trees, and stirs in the strange loves of wind‐borne plants, and hums in every song of the bee, and burns in every quiver of the flame, and peoples with sentient myriads every drop of dew that gathers on a hare‐bell, every bead of water that ripples in a brook—to these the mortal life of man can seem but little, save at once the fiercest and the feeblest thing that does exist; at once the most cruel and the most impotent; tyrant of direst destruction and bondsman of lowest captivity.

Hence, pity entered very little into his thoughts at any time; the perpetual tortures of life did indeed perplex him, as it perplexes every thinking creature, with wonder at the universal bitterness that taints all creation, at the universal death whereby all forms of life are nurtured, at the universal anguish of all existence which daily and nightly assails the unknown God in piteous protest at the inexorable laws of inexplicable miseries and mysteries. But because such suffering was thus universal, therefore he almost ceased to feel pity for it; of the two he pitied the beasts far more than the human kind:—the horse staggering beneath the lash in all the feebleness of hunger, lameness, and old age; the ox bleeding from the goad on the hard furrows, or stumbling through the hooting crowd, blind, footsore, and shivering, to its last home in the slaughter‐house; the dog, yielding up its noble life inch by inch under the tortures of the knife, loyally licking the hand of the vivisector while he drove his probe through its quivering nerves; the unutterable hell in which all these gentle, kindly and long‐suffering creatures dwelt for the pleasure or the vanity, the avarice or the brutality of men,—these he pitied perpetually, page: 268 with a tenderness for them that was the softest thing in all his nature.

But when he saw men and women suffer he often smiled, not ill pleased. It seemed to him that the worst they could ever endure was only such simple retribution, such mere fair measure of all the agonies they cast broadcast.

Therefore he pitied her now for what repulsed all others from her—that she had so little apparent humanity, and that she was so like an animal in her strength and weakness, and in her ignorance of both her rights and wrongs. Therefore he pitied her; and there was that in her strange kind of beauty, in her half‐savage, half‐timid attitudes, in her curt, unlearned, yet picturesque speech, which attracted him. Besides, although solitude was his preference, he had been for more than two years utterly alone, his loneliness broken only by the companionship of boors, with whom he had not had one thought in common. The extreme poverty in which the latter months of his life had been passed, had excluded him from all human society, since he could have sought none without betraying his necessities. The alms‐seeking visit of some man even more famished and desperate than himself, such as the rag‐picker who had brought the dead girl to him for a few brass coins, had been the only relief to the endless monotony of his existence, a relief that made such change in it worse than its continuance.

In Folle‐Farine for the first time in two long, bitter, colourless, hated years, there was something which aroused his interest and his curiosity, some one to whom impulse led him to speak the thoughts of his mind with little concealment. She seemed, indeed, scarcely more than a wild beast, half‐tamed, inarticulate, defiant, shy, it might be even, if aroused, ferocious; but it was an animal whose eyes dilated in quickening sympathy with all his moods, and an animal whom, at a glance, he knew would, in time, crawl to him or combat for him as he chose.

He talked to her now, much on the same impulse that moves a man, long imprisoned, to converse with the spider that creeps on the floor, with the mouse that drinks from his pitcher, and makes him treat like an intelligent being the tiny flower growing blue and bright between the stones, which is all that brings life into his loneliness.

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The prison door once flung open, the sunshine once streaming across the darkness, the fetters once struck off, the captive once free to go out again amongst his fellows, then—the spider is left to miss the human love that it has learnt, the mouse is left to die of thirst, the little blue flower is left to fade out as it may in the stillness and the gloom alone. Then they are nothing: but while the prison doors are still locked they are much.

Here the gaoler was poverty, and the prison was the world’s neglect, and they who lay bound were high hopes, great aspirations, impossible dreams, immeasurable ambitions, all swathed and fettered, and straining to be free with dumb, mad force against bonds that would not break.

And in these, in their bondage, there were little patience, or sympathy, or softness, and to them, even nature itself at times looked horrible, though never so horrible, because never so despicable as humanity. Yet, still even in these an instinct of companionship abided; and this creature, with a woman’s beauty, and an animal’s fierceness and innocence, was in a manner welcome.

“Why were women ever made then?” she said, after awhile, following, though imperfectly, the drift of his last words, where she lay stretched, obedient to his will, under the shadow of the wall.

He smiled the smile of one who recalls some story he has heard from the raving lips of some friend fever‐stricken.

“Once, long ago, in the far East, there dwelt a saint in the desert. He was content in his solitude: he was holy and at peace: the honey of the wild bee and the fruit of the wild tamarisk tree sufficed to feed him; the lions were his ministers, and the hyenas were his slaves; the eagle flew down for his blessing, and the winds and the storms were his messengers; he had killed the beast in him, and the soul alone had dominion; and day and night, upon the lonely air, he breathed the praise of God.

“Years went with him thus, and he grew old, and he said to himself, ‘I have lived content; so shall I die purified, and ready for the kingdom of heaven.’ For it was in the day when that wooden god, who hangs on the black cross yonder, was not a lifeless effigy as now, but a name of power and of might, adjuring, while his people smiled under torture, and died in the flame, dreaming of a land where the page: 270 sun never set, and the song never ceased, and the faithful for ever were at rest. So the years, I say, went by with him, and he was glad and at peace.

“One night, when the thunder rolled and the rain‐torrents fell to the door of his cave there came a wayfarer, fainting, sickly, lame, trembling with terror of the desert, and beseeching him to save her from the panthers.

“He was loth, and dreaded to accede to her prayer, for he said, ‘Wheresoever a woman enters, there the content of man is dead.’ But she was in dire distress, and entreated him with tears and supplications not to turn her adrift for the lightning and the lions to devour: and he felt the old human pity steal on him, and he opened the door to her, and bade her enter and take sanctuary there in God’s name.

“But when she had entered, age, and sickness, and want fell from off her, her eyes grew as two stars, her lips were sweet as the rose of the desert, her limbs had the grace of the cheetah, her body had the radiance and the fragrance of frankincense on an altar of gold.

“And she laughed in his beard, and cried, saying ‘Thou thinkest thou hast lived, and yet thou hast not loved? Oh sage! oh saint! oh fool, fool, fool!’ then into his veins there rushed youth, and into his brain there came madness; the life he had led seemed but death, and eternity loathsome since passionless; and he stretched his arms to her and sought to embrace her, crying, ‘Stay with me, though I buy thee with hell.’ And she stayed.

“But when the morning broke she left him, laughing, gliding like a phantom from his arms, and out into the red sunlight, and across the desert sand, laughing, laughing, always, and mocking him whilst she beckoned. He pursued her, chasing her through the dawn, through the noon, through the night. He never found her; she had vanished as the rose of the rainbow fades out of the sky.

“He searched for her in every city, and in every land. Some say he searches still, doomed to live on through every age, and powerless to die.”

Arslàn had a certain power over words as over colour. Like all true painters, the fibre of his mind was sensuous and poetic, though the quality of passionate imagination was in him welded with a coldness and a stillness of temper born in him with his northern blood. He had dwelt much page: 271 in Asiatic countries, and much of the philosophies and much of the phraseology of the East remained with him. Something even there seemed in him of the mingled asceticism and sensualism, the severe self‐denial, with the voluptuous fancy of the saints who once had peopled the deserts in which he had in his turn delighted to dwell, free and lonely, scorning women and deserting man. He spoke seldom, being by nature silent; but when he did speak his language was unconsciously varied into picture‐like formations.

She listened breathless, with the colour in her cheeks and the fire brooding in her eyes, her unformed mind catching the swift shadowy allegories of his tale by force of the poetic instincts in her.

No one had ever talked to her thus; and yet it seemed clear to her and beautiful, like the story which the great sunflowers told as they swayed to and fro in the light, like the song that the bright brook water sung as it purled and sparkled under the boughs.

“That is true!” she said, suddenly, at length.

“It is a saint’s story in substance; it is true in spirit for all time.”

Her breath came with a sharp, swift, panting sound. She was blinded with the new light that broke in on her.

“If I be a woman, shall I then be such a woman as that?”

Arslàn rested his eyes on her with a grave, half sad, half sardonic smile.

“Why not? You are the devil’s daughter, you say. Of such are men’s kingdom of heaven!”

She pondered long upon his answer; she could not comprehend it; she had understood the parable of his narrative, yet the passion of it had passed her by, and the evil shut in it had escaped her.

“Do, then, men love what destroys them?” she asked, slowly.

“Always!” he made answer, still with that same smile as of one who remembers hearkening to the delirious ravings round him in a madhouse through which he has walked—himself sane—in a bygone time.

“I do not want love,” she said, suddenly, while her brain, half strong, half feeble, struggled to fit her thoughts to page: 272 words. “I want, I want, to have power as the priest has on the people when he says, ‘pray!’ and they pray.”

“Power!” he echoed, as the devotee echoes the name of his god. “Who does not? But do you think the woman that tempted the saint had none? If ever you reach that kingdom such power will become yours.”

A proud glad exultation swept over her face for a moment. It quickly faded. She did not believe in a future. How many times had she not, since the hand of Claudis Flamma first struck her, prayed with all the passion of a child’s dumb agony that the dominion of her Father’s power might come to her. And the great Evil had never hearkened. He, whom all men around her feared, had made her no sign that he heard, but left her to blows, to solitude, to continual hunger, to perpetual toil.

“I have prayed to the devil again and again and he will not hear,” she muttered. “Marcellin says that he has ears for all. But for me he has none.”

“He has too much to do to hear all. All the nations of the earth beseech him. Yonder man on the cross they adjure with their mouths indeed; but it is your god only whom in their hearts they worship. See how the Christ hangs his head: he is so weary of lip‐service.”

“But since they give the Christ so many temples, why do they raise none to the devil?”

“Chut! No man builds altars to his secret god. Look you: I will tell you another story. Once, in an Eastern land, there was a temple dedicated to all the deities of all the peoples that worshipped under the sun. There were many statues and rare ones; statues of silver and gold, of ivory, and agate, and chalcedony, and there were altars raised before all, on which every nation offered up sacrifice and burned incense before its divinity.

“Now, no nation would look at the god of another; and each people clustered about the feet of its own fetish, and glorified it, crying out, ‘There is no god but this god.’

“The noise was fearful, and the feuds were many, and the poor king, whose thought it had been to erect such a temple, was confounded, and very sorrowful, and murmured, saying—‘I dreamed to beget universal peace and tolerance and harmony; and lo! there come of my thoughts nothing but discord and war.’

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“Then to him there came a stranger, veiled, and claiming no country, and he said, ‘You were mad to dream religion could ever be peace, yet, be not disquieted; give me but a little space and I will erect an altar whereat all men shall worship, leaving their own gods.’

“The king gave him permission; and he raised up a simple stone, and on it he wrote, ‘To the Secret Sin!’ and, being a sorcerer, he wrote with such a curious power, that showed the inscription to the sight of each man, but blinded him whilst he gazed on it to all sight of his fellows.

“And each man forsook his god, and came and kneeled before this nameless altar, each bowing down before it, and each believing himself in solitude. The poor forsaken gods stood naked and alone; there was not one man left to worship one of them.”

She listened; her eloquent eyes fixed on him, her lips parted, her fancy fantastic and full of dreams, strengthened by loneliness, and unbridled through ignorance, steeping itself in every irony and every phantasy, and every shred of knowledge that Chance, her only teacher, cast to her.

She sat thinking, full of a vague sad pity for that denied and forsaken God on the cross, by the river, such as she had never felt before; since she had always regarded him as the symbol of cruelty, of famine and of hatred; not knowing that these are only the colours which all deities alike reflect from the hearts of the peoples that worship them.

“If I had a god,” she said, suddenly. “If a god cared to claim me—I would be proud of his worship everywhere.”

Arslàn smiled.

“All women have a god; that is why they are at once so much weaker and so much happier than men.”

“Who are their gods?”

“Their name is legion. Innocent women make gods of their offspring, of their homes, of their housework, of their duties; and are as cruel as tigresses meanwhile to all outside the pale of their temples. Others—less innocent—make gods of their own forms and faces; of bright stones dug from the earth, of vessels of gold and silver, of purple and fine linen, of passions, and vanities, and desires; gods that they consume themselves for in their youth, and that they curse, and beat, and upbraid in the days of their age. Which of these gods will be yours?”

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She thought a while, steadily and wearily.

“None of them,” she said at last.

“None? What will you put in their stead, then?”

She thought gravely some moments again. Although a certain terse and even poetic utterance was the shape which her spoken imagination naturally took at all times, ignorance and solitude had made it hard for her aptly to marry her thoughts to words.

“I do not know,” she said, wearily afresh. “Marcellin says that every God is deaf. He must be deaf—or very cruel. Look; everything lives in pain; and yet no God pities and makes an end of earth. I would—if I were He. Look; at dawn, the other day, I was out in the wood. I came upon a little rabbit in a trap; a little, pretty, soft, black‐and‐white thing, quite young. It was screaming in its horrible misery’; it had been screaming all night. Its thighs were broken in the iron teeth; the trap held it tight ; it could not escape, it could only scream—scream—scream. All in vain. When I had set it free it was mangled as if a wolf had gnawed it: the iron teeth had bitten through the fur, and the flesh, and the bone; it had lost so much blood and it was in so much pain, that it could not live. I laid it down in the braken, and put water to its mouth, and did what I could; but it was of no use. It had been too much hurt. It died as the sun rose; a little, harmless, shy creature, and only asked to nibble a leaf or two, or sleep in a little round hole, and run about merry and free. How can one care for a God since he lets these things be?”

Arslàn smiled as he heard.

“Child,—men care for a god only as a god means good to them. Men are heirs of heaven, they say; and, in right of their heritage, they make life hell to every living thing that dares dispute the world with them. You do not understand that,—tut! You are not human then. If you were human, you would begrudge a blade of grass to a rabbit, and arrogate to yourself a lease of immortality.”

She did not understand him; but she felt that she was honoured by him, and not scorned as others scorned her, for being thus unlike humanity. It was a bitter perplexity to her, this earth on which she had been flung amidst an alien people; that she should suffer herself seemed little to her, page: 275 it had become as a second nature; but the sufferings of all the innumerable tribes of creation, things of the woods, and the field, and the waters, and the sky, that toiled and sweated and were hunted, and persecuted and wrenched in torment, and finally perished to gratify the appetites or the avarice of humanity, these sufferings were horrible to her always: inexplicable, hideous, unpardonable,—a crime for which she hated God and Man.

“There is no god pitiful then?” she said, at length, “no god—not one?”

“Only those Three,” he answered her, as he motioned towards the three brethren that watched above her.

“Are they your gods?”

A smile that moved her to a certain fear of him passed a moment over his mouth.

“My gods?—No. They are the gods of youth and of age—not of manhood.”

“What is yours then?”

“Mine?—a Moloch who consumes my offspring, yet in whose burning brazen hands I have put them and myself—for ever.”

She looked at him in awe and in reverence. She imagined him the priest of some dark and terrible religion, for whose sake he lapsed his years in solitude and deprivation, and by whose powers he created the wondrous shapes that rose and bloomed around him.

“Those are gentler gods?” she said timidly, raising her eyes to the brethren above her. “Do you never—will you never—worship them?”

“I have ceased to worship them. In time—when the world has utterly beaten me—no doubt I shall pray to one at least of them. To that one, see, the eldest of the brethren, who holds his torch turned downwards.”

“And that god is—?”

“Death!”

She was silent.

Was this god not her god also?

Had she not chosen him, and laid her life down at his feet for this man’s sake?

“He must never know;—he must never know,” she said again in her heart.

And Thanatos she knew would not betray her; for page: 276 Thanatos keeps all the secrets of men—he, who alone of the gods reads the truths of men’s souls, and smiles, and shuts them in the hollow of his hand, and lets the braggart Time fly on with careless feet, telling what lies he will to please the world a little space. Thanatos holds silence and can wait;—for him must all things ripen, and, at last, to him must all things fall.

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