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Folle-Farine. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 301

CHAPTER VII.

SHE was his absolute slave; and he used his influence with little scruple. Whatever he told her she believed: whatever he desired, she obeyed.

With little effort Arslàn persuaded her that to lend her beauty to the purpose of his art was a sacrifice pure and supreme; repaid, it might be, with immortality, like the immortality of the Mona Lisa. It was ever painful and even loathsome to her to give her beauty to the merciless imitations of art; it stung the dignity and purity that were inborn in the daughter of an outlawed people; it wounded, and hurt, and humiliated her. She knew that these things were only done that one day the eyes of thousands and of tens of thousands might gaze on them; and the knowledge was hateful to her. But as she would have hewn wood or carried water for him, as she would have denied her lips the least morsel of bread that his might have fed thereon, as she would have gone straight to the river’s edge at his bidding, and have stood still for the stream to swell and the floods to cover her, so she obeyed him, and let him make of her what he would.

He painted or sketched her in nearly every attitude, and rendered her the centre of innumerable stories.

He placed her form in the crowd of dancing‐women that followed after Barabbas. He took her for Persephone, as for Phryne. He couched her on the bleak rocks and the sea‐sands of barren Tenedos. He made her beauty burn through the purple passion vines and the roses of silence of the Venusberg. He pourtrayed her as Daphne, with all her soft human form changing and merging into the bitter roots and the poisonous leaves of the laurel that was the fruit of love. He drew her as Læna, whose venal lips yet, being purified by a perfect love, were sealed mute unto death, and for love’s sake spake not.

He sketched her in a hundred shapes and for a hundred page: 302 stories, taking her wild deer‐like grace, and her supple mountain‐bred strength, and her beauty that had all the richness and the freshness that sun and wind and rain and the dews of the nights can give, taking these as he in other years had taken the bloom of the grape, the blush of the sea‐shell, the red glow of the desert reed, the fleeting glory of anything that, by its life or by its death, would minister to his dreams or his desires.

Of all the studies he made from her—he all the while cold to her as any priest of old to the bird that he seethed in its blood on his altars of sacrifice,—those which were slightest of all, yet of all pleased him best, were two twin studies which were fullest of that ruthless and unsparing irony with which in every stroke of his pencil he cut as with a knife into the humanity he dissected.

In the first, he painted her in all the warm, dreaming, palpitating slumber of youth, asleep in a field of poppies: thousands of the brilliant blossoms were crushed under her slender, pliant, folded limbs; the intense scarlet of the flowers burned everywhere, above, beneath, around her; purple shadow and amber light contended for the mastery upon her; her arms were lightly tossed above her head; her mouth smiled in her dreams; over her a butterfly flew, spreading golden wings to the sun; against her breast the great crimson cups of the flowers of sleep curled and glowed; amongst them, hiding and gibbering and glaring at her with elfin eyes, was the Red Mouse of the Brocken—the one touch of pitiless irony, of unsparing cynicism, that stole like a snake through the hush and the harmony and the innocence of repose.

In the second there was still the same attitude, the same solitude, the same rest, but the sleep was the sleep of death.

Stretched on a block of white marble, there were the same limbs, but livid and lifeless, and twisted in the contortions of a last agony: there was the same loveliness, but on it the hues of corruption had already stolen; the face was still turned upward, but the blank eyes stared hideously, and the mouth was drawn back from teeth closely clenched; upon the stone there lay a surgeon’s knife and a sculptor’s scalpel; between her lips the Red Mouse sat, watching, mouthing, triumphant.

All the beauty was left still, but it was left ghastly, dis‐ page: 303 coloured, ruined,—ready for the mockery of the clay, for the violation of the knife,—ready for the feast of the blind‐worm, for the narrow home dug in darkness and in dust.

And these two pictures were so alike and yet so unlike, so true to all the glory of youth, so true to all the ghastliness of death, that they were terrible; they were terrible even to the man who drew them with so unsparing and unfaltering a hand.

Only to her they were not terrible, because they showed his power, because they were his will and work. She had no share in the shudder, which even he felt, at that visible presentment of corruption to which her beauty in its human perfection was destined: since it pleasured him to do it, that was all she cared.

She would have given her beauty to the scourge of the populace, or to the fish of the sea, at his bidding. She had not asked him even what the Red Mouse meant.

She was content that he should deal with her in all things as he would. That such pourtrayals of her were cruel she never once thought: to her all others had been so brutal that the cruelties of Arslàn seemed soft as the south wind.

To be for one instant a thing in the least wished for and endeared was to her a miracle so wonderful, and so undreamt of, that it made her life sublime to her.

“Is that all the devil has done for you?” cried the gardener’s wife from the vine‐hung lattice, leaning out while the boat from Yprès went down the water‐street beneath.

“It was scarcely worth while to be his offspring if he deal you no better gifts than that. He is as niggard as the saints are—the little mean beasts. Do you know that the man who paints you brings death they say—sooner or later—to every creature that lives again for him in his art?”

Folle‐Farine, beneath the dense brown shadows cast from the timbers of the leaning houses, raised her eyes; the eyes smiled, and yet they had a look in them that chilled even the mocking, careless wanton temper of the woman who leaned above amongst the roses.

“I have heard it,” she said, simply, as her oar broke the shadows.

page: 304

“And you have no fear?”

“I have no fear.”

The gardener’s wife laughed aloud, the silver pins shaking in her yellow tresses.

“Well—the devil gives strength, no doubt. But I will not say much for the devil’s wage. A fine office he set you—his daughter—to lend yourself to a painter’s eyes like any wanton that he could hire in the market‐place for a drink of wine. If the devil do no better than that for you—his own begotten,—I will cleave close to the saints and the angels henceforth, though they do take all the gems and the gold and the lace for their altars, and bestow so little in answer.”

The boat had passed on with slow and even measure; no words of derision which they could cast at her had power to move her any more than the fret of the ruffling rooks had power to move the cathedral spires around which they beat with their wings the empty air.

The old dull, grey routine of perpetual toil was illumined and enriched. If any reviled her, she heard not. If any flung a stone at her, she caught it and dropped it on the grass, and went on with a glance of pardon. When the rude children ran after her footsteps bawling and mouthing, she turned and looked at them with a dreaming tenderness in her eyes that rebuked them and held them silenced and afraid. Now, she hated none; nor could she envy any. The women were welcome to their little joys of hearth and home; they were welcome to look for their lovers across the fields with smiling eyes shaded from the sun, or to beckon their infants from the dusky orchards to murmur fond foolish words and stroke the curls of flaxen down,—she begrudged them nothing: she, too, had her portion and her treasure.

Base usage cannot make base a creature that gives itself nobly, purely, with unutterable and exhaustless love; and whilst the people in the country round muttered at her for her vileness and disgrace, she, all unwitting and made proud, raised high above the reach of taunt and censure by a deep and speechless joy that rendered hunger, and labour, and pain, and brutal tasks, and jibing glances indifferent to her—nay, unfelt—went on her daily ways with a light richer than the light of the sun in her eyes, and in her step the page: 305 noble freedom of one who has broken from bondage and entered into a heritage of grace.

She was proud as with the pride of one selected for some great dignity; graced with the grace that a supreme devotion and a supreme ignorance made possible to her. He was as a god to her; and she had found favour in his sight. Although by all others despised, to him she was beautiful; a thing to be desired, not abhorred; a creature not cursed for daring to have a breath of mortal life, but thought worthy of life eternal amidst the deathless children of his genius. It seemed to her so wonderful that, night and day, in her heart she praised God for it—that dim unknown God of whom no man had taught her, but whom she had vaguely grown to dream of and to honour, and to behold in the setting of the sun, and in the flux of the sea, and in the mysteries of the starlit skies.

Of shame to her in it she had no thought: a passion strong as fire in its force, pure as crystal in its unselfishness, possessed her for him, and laid her at his feet to be done with as he would.

She would have crouched to him like a dog; she would have worked for him like a slave; she would have killed herself if he had bidden her without a word of resistance or a moan of regret. To be touched by him one moment as his hand moved some wave of her hair or some fold of her drapery, as he studied an outline or changed an attitude, was to her the greatest glory life could know. To be a pleasure to him for one hour, to see his eyes tell her once, however carelessly or coldly, that she had any beauty fit for his pourtrayal, was to her the noblest fate that could befall her.

To him she was no more than the cluster of grapes to the wayfarer, who brushes their bloom off and steals their sweetness, then casts them down to be trampled on, by whosoever the next comer be. But to this creature, who had no guide except her instincts of passion and sacrifice, who had no guard except the pure scorn that had kept her from the meanness and coarseness of the vices around her, this was unintelligible, unsuspected; and if she had understood it, she would have accepted it mutely, in that abject humility which had bent the dauntless temper in her to his will.

To be of use to him,—to be held of any worth to him,— page: 306 to have his eyes find any loveliness to study in her,—to be to him only as the flower which he broke from the stem to copy its bloom on his canvas, and then cast out on the sand to wither as it would,—this, even this, seemed to her the highest fate to which she could have had election.

That he only borrowed the colour of her cheek and the outline of her limbs, as he had borrowed a thousand times ere then the venal charms of the dancing‐women of taverns and play‐houses, and the hireling graces of the wanton who strayed in the public ways, was a knowledge that never touched her with its indignity. To her his art was a religion, supreme, passionless, eternal, whose sacrificial fires ennobled and consecrated all that they consumed.

“Though I shall die as the leaf dies in my body, yet I shall live for ever embalmed amidst the beauty of his thoughts,” she told herself perpetually, and all her life became transfigured.

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