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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 276

CHAPTER V.

WHEN she left him that night, and went homeward, he trimmed his lamp and returned to his labours of casting and modelling from the body of the rag‐picker’s daughter. The work soon absorbed him too entirely to leave any memory with him of the living woman. He did not know—and had he known would not have heeded—that instead of going on her straight path back to Yprès she turned again, and, hidden amongst the rushes upon the bank, crouched half sitting and half kneeling, to watch him from the river‐side. It was all dark and still, without; nothing came near, except now and then some hobbled mule turned out to forage for his evening meal, or some night‐browsing cattle straying out of bounds. Once or twice a barge went slowly and sullenly by, its single light twinkling across the breadth of the stream, and the voice of its steersman calling huskily through the fog. A drunken peasant staggered across the fields singing snatches of a republican march that broke roughly on the silence of the night. The young lambs bleated to their mothers in the meadows, and the bells of the old clock towers in the town chimed the quarters with a Laus Deo in which all their metal tongues joined musically.

She remained there undisturbed amongst the long grasses and the tufts of the reeds, gazing always into the dimly‐lighted interior where the pale rays of the oil flame lit up the white forms of the gods, the black shadows of the columns, the shapes of the wrestling lion and the strangled gladiator, the grey stiff frame and hanging hair of the dead page: 277 body, and the bending figure of Arslàn as he stooped above the corpse and pursued the secret powers of his art into the hidden things of death.

To her there seemed nothing terrible in a night thus spent, in a vigil thus ghastly; it seemed to her only a part of his strength thus to make death,—men’s conqueror,—his servant and his slave; she only begrudged every passionless touch that his grasp gave to those frozen and rigid limbs which he moved to and fro like so much clay; she only envied with a jealous thirst every cold caress that his hand lent to that loose and lifeless hair which he swept aside like so much flax.

He did not see; he did not know. To him she was no more than any bronze‐winged, golden‐eyed insect that should have floated in on a night breeze and been painted by him and been cast out again upon the darkness.

He worked more than half the night—worked until the small store of oil he possessed burned itself out, and left the hall to the feeble light of a young moon shining through dense vapours. He dropped his tools, and rose and walked to and fro on the width of the stone floor. His hands felt chilled to the bone with the contact of the dead flesh; his breathing felt oppressed with the heavy humid air that lay like ice upon his lungs.

The dead woman was nothing to him. He had not once thought of the youth that had perished in her; of the laughter that hunger had hushed for ever on the colourless lips; of the passion blushes that had died out for ever on the ashen cheeks; of the caressing hands of mother and of lover that must have wandered amongst that curling hair; of the children that should have slept on that white breast so smooth and cold beneath his hand. For these he cared nothing, and thought as little. The dead girl for him had neither sex nor story; and he had studied all phases and forms of death too long to be otherwise than familiar with them all. Yet a certain glacial despair froze his heart as he left her body, lying there in the flicker of the struggling moonbeams, and, himself, pacing to and fro in his solitude, suffered a greater bitterness than death in his doom of poverty and of obscurity.

The years of his youth had gone in fruitless labour, and the years of his manhood were gliding after them, and yet page: 278 he had failed so utterly to make his mark upon his generation that he could only maintain his life by the common toil of the common hand‐labourer, and, if he died on the morrow, there would not be one hand stretched out to save any one work of his creation from the housewife’s fires or the lime‐burner’s furnace.

Cold to himself as to all others, he said bitterly in his soul, “What is Failure except Feebleness? And what is it to miss one’s mark except to aim wildly and weakly?”

He told himself that harsh and inexorable truth a score of times, again and again, as he walked backward and forward in the solitude which only that one dead woman shared.

He told himself that he was a madman, a fool, who spent his lifetime in search and worship of a vain eidolon. He told himself that there must be in him some radical weaknesses, some inalienable fault, that he could not in all these years find strength enough to compel the world of men to honour him. Agony overcame him as he thought and thought and thought, until he scorned himself; the supreme agony of a strong nature that for once mistrusts itself as feebleness, of a great genius that for once despairs of itself as self‐deception.

Had he been the fool of his vanities all his youth upward; and had his fellow‐men been only wise and clear of sight when they had denied him and refused to see excellence in any work of his hand? Almost, he told himself, it must be so.

He paused by the open casement, and looked outward, scarcely knowing what he did. The mists were heavy; the air was loaded with damp exhalations; the country was profoundly still; above‐head only a few stars glimmered here and there through the haze. The peace, the silence, the obscurity were abhorrent to him; they seemed to close upon him, and imprison him; far away were all the colour and the strength and the strain and the glory of living; it seemed to him as though he were dead also, like the woman on the tressel yonder; dead in some deep sea grave where the weight of the waters kept him down and held his hands powerless, and shut his eyelids from all sight, while the living voices and the living footsteps of men came dimly on his ear from the world above; voices not one of page: 279 which uttered his name; footsteps, not one of which paused by his tomb.

It grew horrible to him—this death‐in‐life, to which in the freshness of manhood he often himself condemned.

“Oh, God!” he, who believed in no God, muttered half aloud, “Let me be without love, wealth, peace, health, gladness, all my life long—let me be crippled, childless, beggared, hastened to the latest end of my days,—give me only to be honoured in my works; give me only a name that men cannot, if they wish, let die.

Whether any ear greater than man heard the prayer, who shall say? Daily and nightly, through all the generations of the world, the human creature implores from his Creator the secrets of his existence, and asks in vain. There is one answer indeed; but it is the answer of all the million races of the universe, which only cry, “We are born but to perish; is Humanity a thing so high or pure that it should not claim exemption for the universal and inexorable law?”

One mortal listener heard, hidden amongst the hollow sighing rushes, bathed in moonlight and the mists; and the impersonal passion which absorbed him found echo in this inarticulate imperfect soul, just wakened in its obscurity to the first faint meanings of its mortal life, as a nest‐bird rouses in the dawn to the first faint pipe of its involuntary cry.

She barely knew what he sought, what he asked, and yet her heart ached with his desire, and shared the bitterness of his denial.

What kind of life he craved in the ages to come; what manner of remembrance he yearned for from the unborn races of men; what thing it was which he besought should be given to him in the stead of all love, all peace, all personal woes and physical delights, she did not know; the future to her had no meaning; and the immortal fame which he craved was an unknown god, of whose worship she had no comprehension; and yet she vaguely felt that what he sought was that his genius still should live when his body should be destroyed, and that those mute, motionless, majestic shapes which arose at his bidding should become characters and speak for him to all the generations of men when his own mouth should be sealed dumb in death.

This hunger of the soul which unmanned and tortured page: 280 him, though the famine of the flesh had had no power to move him, thrilled her with the instinct of its greatness. This thirst of the mind, which could not slake itself in common desires or sensual satiety, or any peace and pleasure of the ordinary life of man, had likeness in it to that dim instinct which had made her nerves throb at the glories of the changing skies, and her eyes fill with tears at the sound of a bird’s singing in the darkness of dawn, and her heart yearn with vain nameless longing as for some lost land, for some forgotten home, in the radiant hush of earth and air at sunrise.

He suffered as she suffered; and a sweet new‐born sense of unity and of likeness stirred in her amidst the bitter pity of her soul. To her he was as a king: and yet he was powerless. To give him power she would have died a thousand deaths.

“The gods gave me life for him,” she thought. “His life instead of mine? Will they forget?—Will they forget?”

And where she crouched in the gloom beneath the bulrushes she flung herself down prostrate in supplication, her face buried in the long damp river‐grass.

“Oh, Immortals!” she implored in benighted, wistful, passionate faith, “remember to give me his life and take mine. Do what you choose with me; forsake me, kill me; cast my body to fire, and my ashes to the wind; let me be trampled like the dust, and despised as the chaff; let me be bruised, beaten, nameless, hated always; let me always suffer and always be scorned; but grant me this one thing—to give him his desire!”

For unless the gods gave him greatness, she knew that vain would be the gift of life—the gift of mere length of years—which she had bought for him.

Her mind had been left blank as a desert, whilst in its solitude dreams had sprung forth wind‐sown like wayside grasses, and vague desires wandered like wild doves; but although blank the soil was rich and deep and virgin.

Because she had dwelt sundered from her kind, she had learned no evil; a stainless though savage innocence had remained with her. She had been reared in hardship and inured to hunger until such pangs seemed to her scarce worth the counting, save perhaps to see if they had been page: 281 borne with courage and without murmur. On her, profoundly unconscious of the meaning of any common luxury or any common comfort, the passions of natures more worldly‐wise, and better aware of the empire of gold, had no hold at any moment. To toil dully and be hungry and thirsty, and fatigued and footsore, had been her daily portion. She knew nothing of the innumerable pleasures and powers that the rich command. She knew scarcely of the existence of the simplest forms of civilization: therefore she knew nothing of all that he missed through poverty; she only perceived, by an unerring instinct of apprehension, all that he gained through genius.

Her mind was profoundly ignorant; her character trained by cruelty only to endurance: yet the soil was not rank, but only unfilled, not barren, but only unsown; nature had made it generous, though fate had left it untilled; it grasped the seed of the first great idea cast to it and held it firm, until it multiplied tenfold.

The imagined danger to them which the peasants had believed to exist in her had been as a strong buckler between the true danger to her from the defilement of their companionship and example; they had cursed her as they had passed, and their curses had been her blessing. Blind instincts had always moved in her to the great and the good things of which no man had taught her in any wise.

Left to herself, and uncontaminated by humanity, because proscribed by it, she had known no teachers of any sort save the winds and the waters, the sun and the moon, the daybreak and the night, and these had breathed into her an unconscious heroism, a changeless patience, a fearless freedom, a strange tenderness and callousness united. Ignorant though she was, and abandoned to the darkness of all the superstitious and the sullen stupor amidst which her lot was cast, there was yet that in her which led her to veneration of the purpose of his life.

He desired not happiness, nor tenderness, nor bodily ease, nor sensual delight, but only this one thing—a name that should not perish from amongst the memories of men. And this desire seemed to her sublime, divine; not comprehending it, she yet revered it. She, who had seen he souls of the men around her set on a handful of copper coin, a fleece of wool, a load of fruit, a petty pilfering, a low gain page: 282 in commerce, saw the greatness of a hero’s sacrifice in this supreme self‐negation which was willing to live unloved, and die forsaken by his kind, so that only the works of his hand might endure, and his thoughts be uttered in them when his body should be destroyed.

It is true that the great artist is as a fallen god who remembers a time when worlds arose at his breath, and at his bidding the barren lands blossomed into fruitfulness; the sorcery of the thyrsus is still his, though weakened.

The powers of lost dominion haunt his memory; the remembered glory of an eternal sun is in his eyes, and makes the light of common day seem darkness; the heart‐sickness of a long exile weighs on him; incessantly he labours to overtake the mirage of a loveliness which fades as he pursues it. In the poetic creation by which the bondage of his material life is redeemed, he finds at once ecstasy and disgust, because he feels at once his strength and weakness. For him all things of earth and air, and sea and cloud, have beauty; and to his ear all voices of the forest land and water world are audible.

He is as a god, since he can call into palpable shape dreams born of impalpable thought; as a god, since he has known the truth divested of lies, and has stood face to face with it, and been not afraid; a god thus. But a cripple, inasmuch as his hand can never fashion the shapes that his vision beholds; an alien, because he has lost what he never will find upon earth; a beast, since ever and again his passions will drag him to wallow in the filth of sensual indulgence; a slave, since oftentimes the divinity that is in him breaks and bends under the devilry that also is in him, and he obeys the instincts of vileness, and when he would fain bless the nations he curses them.

Some vague perception of this dawned on her; the sense was in her to feel the beauty of art, and to be awed by it though she could not have told what it was, nor why she cared for it. And to the man who ministered to it, who ruled it, and yet obeyed it, seemed to her ennobled with a greatness that was the grandest thing her blank and bitter fate had known. This was all wonderful, dreamful, awful to her, and in a half savage, half poetic way, she comprehended the one object of his life, and honoured it without doubt or question.

page: 283

No day from that time passed without her spending the evening hours under the roof of the haunted corn‐tower.

She toiled all the other hours through, from the earliest time that the first flush of day lightened the starlit skies; did not he toil too? But when the sun set she claimed her freedom; and her rulers did not dare to say her nay.

A new and wondrous and exquisite life slowly opened to her; the life of the imagination.

All these many years since the last song of Phratos had died off her ear, had been spent by her with no more culture and with no more pleasure than the mule had that she led with his load along the miry ways in the sharp winter‐time. Yet even through that utter neglect, and that torpor of thought and feeling, some wild natural fancy had been astir in her, some vague sense wakened that brought to her in the rustle of leaves, in the sound of waters, in the curling breath of mists, in the white birth of lilies, in all the notes and hues of the open‐air world, a mystery and a loveliness that they did not bear for any of those around her.

Now, in the words that Arslàn cast to her—often as idly and indifferently as a man casts bread to frozen birds on snow, birds that he pities and yet cares nothing for—the old religions, the old beliefs, became to her living truths and divine companions. The perplexities of the world grew little clearer to her, indeed; and the miseries of the animal creation no less hideous a mystery. The confusion of all things was in no wise clearer to her; even, it seemed, it deepened and grew more entangled. He could imbue her with neither credulity nor contentment; for he possessed neither, and despised both, as the fool’s paradise of those who, having climbed a sand‐hill, fancy that they have ascended Zion.

The weariness, the unrest, the desire, the contempt of such a life as his can furnish anodyne neither to itself nor any other. But such consolations and possessions—and these are limitless—as the imagination can create, he placed within her reach. Before, she had dreamed—dreamed all through the heaviness of toil and the gall of tyranny; but she had dreamed as a goatherd may upon a mist‐swept hill by the western seas, while all the earth is dark, and only its dim fugitive waking sounds steal dully on the drowsy ear. page: 284 But now, through the myths and parables which grew familiar to her, she dreamed almost as poets dream, bathed in the full flood of a setting sun on the wild edge of the Campagna; a light in which all common things of daily life grow glorious, and through whose rosy hues the only sound that comes is some rich dulcet bell which slowly swings in all the majesty and melody of prayer.

The land was no more mute to her, no more only a hard and cruel place of labour and of butchery, in which all creatures suffered and were cursed. All things rose to have their story and their symbol for her; Nature, remaining to her that one sure solace and immeasurable mystery which she had feebly felt it even in her childhood, was brought closer to her, and seemed fuller of compassion. All the forms and vices of the fair dead years of the world seemed to grow visible and audible to her, with those marvelous tales of the old heroic age which little by little he unfolded to her.

In the people around her, and in their faiths, she had no belief; she wanted a faith, and found one in all these strange sweet stories of a perished time.

She had never thought that there had been any other generation before that which was present on earth with herself; any other existence than this narrow and sordid one which encircled her home.

That men had lived who had fashioned those aërial wonders of the cathedral spires, and stained those vivid hues in its ancient casements, had been a fact too remote to be known to her, though for twelve years her eyes had gazed at them in reverence of their loveliness.

Through Arslàn the exhaustless annals of the world’s history opened before her, the present ceased to matter to her in its penury and pain; for the treasury‐houses of the golden past were opened to her sight.

Most of all she loved the myths of the Homeric and Hesiodic ages; and every humble and homely thing became ennobled to her and enriched, beholding it through the halo of poetry and of tradition.

When, aloft in the red and white apple‐blossoms sparrows pecked and screamed, and spent the pleasant summer hours above in the flower‐scented air in shrill dispute and sharp contention, she thought that she heard in their noisy page: 285 notes the arrogant voice of Alcyone. When the wild hyacinths made the ground purple beneath the poplars and the pines, she saw in them the transformed loveliness of one who had died in the fulness of youth, at play, in a summer’s noon, and died content, because stricken by the hand of the greatest and goodliest of all the gods, the god that loved him best. As the cattle, with their sleek red hides and curling horns, came through the fogs of the daybreak, across the level meadows, and through the deep dock‐leaves they seemed to her no more the mere beasts of stall and share, but even as the milk‐white herds that grazed of yore in the blest pastures.

All night, int he heart of the orchards, when the song of the nightingales rose on the stillness, it was no longer for her a little brown bird that sang to the budding fruit and her closed daisies, but was the voice of Ædon bewailing her son through the ages, or the woe of Philomela crying through the wilderness. When through the white hard brilliancy of noonday the swift swallow darted down the beams of light, she saw no longer in it an insect‐hunter, a house‐nesting creature, but saw the shape of Procne, slaughter‐haunted, seeking rest and finding none. And when she went about her labours, hewing wood, drawing water, bearing the corn to the grindstones, leading the mules to the mill‐stream, she ceased to despair. For she had heard the old glad story of the children of Zeus who dwelt so long within a herdsman’s hut, nameless and dishonoured, yet lived to go back crowned to Thebes and see the beasts of the desert and the stones of the streets rise up and obey the magic of their song.

Arslàn in his day had given many evil gifts, but this one gift that he gave was pure and full of solace; this gift of the beauty of the past. Imperfect, obscure, broken in fragments, obscured by her own ignorance, it was indeed when it reached her; yet it came with a glory that time could not dim, and a consolation that ignorance could not impair.

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