1839-1908 Ouida.

Wisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida online

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them some day that they dread vaguely, for they are
terrible cowards. But they worry as little about it as
possible. They give the millionth part of what they
possess away in its name to whatever church they belong
to, and they think they have arranged quite comfortably
for all possible contingencies hereafter.

If it make things safe, they will head bazaars for the
poor, or wear black in holy week, turn lottery-wheels for
charity, or put on fancy dresses in the name of bene-
volence, or do any little amiable trifle of that sort. But
as for changing their lives, pas si bete !

A bird in the hand they hold worth two in the bush ;
and though your birds may be winged on strong desire,
and your bush the burning portent of Moses, they will
have none of them.

These women are not all bad ; oh, no ! they are like
sheep, that is all. If it were fashionable to be virtuous,
very likely they would be so. If it were chic to be
devout, no doubt they would pass their life on their
knees. But, as it is, they know that a flavour of vice
is as necessary to their reputation as great ladies, as
sorrel-leaves to soup a la bonne femme. They affect a
license if they take it not.

They are like the barber, who said, with much pride,
to Voltaire, " Je ne suis qu'un pauvre diable de perru-
quier, mais je ne crois pas en Dieu plus que les autres."


They may be worth very little, but they are desperately
afraid that you should make such a mistake as to think
them worth anything at all. You are not likely, if you
know them. Still, they are apprehensive.

Though one were to arise from the dead to preach to
them, they would only make of him a nine days' wonder,
and then laugh a little, and yawn a little, and go on in
their own paths.

Out of the eater came forth meat, and from evil there
may be begotten good; but out of nullity there can only
come nullity. They have wadded their ears, and though
Jeremiah wailed of desolation, or Isaiah thundered the
wrath of heaven, they would not hear, they would go
on looking at each other's dresses.

What could Paul himself say that would change them?

You cannot make sawdust into marble ; you cannot
make sea-sand into gold. " Let us alone," is all they
ask ; and it is all that you could do, though the force
and flame of Horeb were in you.

TT is very curious, but loss of taste in the nobles has
always been followed by a revolution of the mob.
The decadence always ushers in the democracy.

T3LEASURE alone cannot content any one whose
character has any force, or mind any high in-
telligence. Society is, as you say, a book we soon
read through, and know by heart till it loses all interest.
Art alone cannot fill more than a certain part of our
emotions ; and culture, however perfect, leaves us un-
satisfied. There is only one thing that can give to life
what your poet called the light that never was on sea
or land and that is human love.


"^VES, it is a curious thing that we do not succeed
in fresco. The grace is gone out of it ; modern
painters have not the lightness of touch necessary ; they
are used to masses of colour, and they use the palette
knife as a mason the trowel. The art, too, like the
literature of our time, is all detail ; the grand suggestive
vagueness of the Greek drama and of the Umbrian
frescoes are lost to us under a crowd of elaborated
trivialities ; perhaps it is because art has ceased to be
spiritual or tragic, and is merely domestic or melo-
dramatic ; the Greeks knew neither domesticity nor
melodrama, and the early Italian painters were imbued
with a faith which, if not so virile as the worship of the
Phidian Zeus, yet absorbed them and elevated them in
a degree impossible in the tawdry Sadduceeism of our
own day. By the way, when the weather is milder you
must go to Orvieto; you have never been there, I think;
it is the Prosodion of Signorelli. What a fine Pagan
he was at heart ! He admired masculine beauty like a
Greek ; he must have been a singularly happy man
few more happy "


'"THE Berceau de Dieu was a little village in the valley
of the Seine.

As a lark drops its nest amongst the grasses, so a
few peasant people had dropped their little farms and
cottages amidst the great green woods on the winding
river. It was a pretty place, with one steep, stony
street, shady with poplars and with elms ; quaint
houses, about whose thatch a cloud of white and grey
pigeons fluttered all day long ; a little aged chapel with
a conical red roof; and great barns covered with ivy
and thick creepers, red and purple, and lichens that
were yellow in the sun.

All around it there were the broad, flowering meadows,
with the sleek cattle of Normandy fattening in them,
and the sweet dim forests where the young men and
maidens went on every holy-day and feast-day in the
summer-time to seek for wood-anemones, and lilies of
the pools, and the wild campanula, and the fresh dog-
rose, and all the boughs and grasses that made their
house-doors like garden-bowers, and seemed to take the
cushat's note and the linnet's song into their little temple
of God.

The Berceau de Dieu was very old indeed.

Men said that the hamlet had been there in the day
of the Virgin of Orleans ; and a stone cross of the


twelfth century still stood by the great pond of water
at the bottom of the street, under the chestnut-tree,
where the villagers gathered to gossip at sunset when
their work was done.

It had no city near it, and no town nearer than four
leagues. It was in the green core of a pastoral district,
thickly wooded and intersected with orchards. Its pro-
duce of wheat, and oats, and cheese, and fruit, and eggs,
was more than sufficient for its simple prosperity. Its
people were hardy, kindly, laborious, happy ; living
round the little grey chapel in amity and good-fellow-

Nothing troubled it. War and rumours of war, revo-
lutions and counter-revolutions, empires and insurrec-
tions, military and political questions, these all were
for it things unknown and unheard of mighty winds
that arose and blew and swept the lands around it, but
never came near enough to harm it, lying there, as it
did, in its loneliness like any lark's nest.

" T AM old : yes, I am very old," she would say, look-
^ ing up from her spinning-wheel in her house-door,
and shading her eyes from the sun, "very old ninety-
two last summer. But when one has a roof over one's
head, and a pot of soup always, and a grandson like
mine, and when one has lived all one's life in the
Berceau de Dieu, then it is well to be so old. Ah,
yes, my little ones yes, though you doubt it, you little
birds that have just tried your wings it is well to be
so old. One has time to think, and thank the good
God, which one never seemed to have a minute to dg
in that work, work, work, when one was young."


'"THE end soon came.

* From hill to hill the Berceau dc Dieu broke into
flames. The village was a lake of fire, into which the
statue of the Christ, burning and reeling, fell. Some
few peasants, with their wives and children, fled to the
woods, and there escaped one torture to perish more
slowly of cold and famine. All other things perished.
The rapid stream of the flame licked up all there was in
its path. The bare trees raised their leafless branches
on fire at a thousand points. The stores of corn and
fruit were lapped by millions of crimson tongues. The
pigeons flew screaming from their roosts and sank into
the smoke. The dogs were suffocated on the thresholds
they had guarded all their lives. The calf was stifled
in the byre. The sheep ran bleating with the wool
burning on their living bodies. The little caged birds
fluttered helpless, and then dropped, scorched to cinders.
The aged and the sick were stifled in their beds. All
things perished.

The Berceau de Dieu was as one vast furnace, in
which every living creature was caught and consumed
and changed to ashes.

The tide of war has rolled on and left it a blackened
waste, a smoking ruin, wherein not so much as a mouse
may creep or a bird may nestle. It is gone, and its
place can know it never more.

Never more.

But who is there to care ?

It was but as a leaf which the great storm withered
as it passed.

"T OOK you," she had said to him oftentimes, "in

my babyhood there was the old white flag upon

the chateau. Well, they pulled that down and put up

a red one. That toppled and fell, and there was one


of three colours. Then somebody with a knot of white
lilies in his hand came one day and set up the old white
one afresh ; and before the day was done that was down
again, and the tricolour again up where it is still. Now
some I know fretted themselves greatly because of all
these changes of the flags, but as for me, I could not
see that any one of them mattered : bread was just as
dear, and sleep was just as sweet, whichever of the
three was uppermost."


T N the spring and summer especially were they glad.
Flanders is not a lovely land, and around the burgh
of Rubens it is perhaps least lovely of all.

Corn and colza, pasture and plough, succeed each
other on the characterless plain in wearying repetition,
and save by some gaunt grey tower, with its peal of
pathetic bells, or some figure coming athwart the fields,
made picturesque by a gleaner's bundle or a woodman's
faggot, there is no change, no variety, no beauty any-
where ; and he who has dwelt upon the mountains or
amidst the forests feels oppressed as by imprisonment
with the tedium and the endlessness of that vast and
dreary level.

But it is green and very fertile, and it has wide
horizons that have a certain charm of their own even
in their dulness and monotony; and amongst the rushes
by the water-side the flowers grow, and the trees rise
tall and fresh where the barges glide with their great
hulks black against the sun, and their little green
barrels and vari-coloured flags gay against the leaves.

Anyway, there is a greenery and breadth of space
enough to be as good as beauty to a child and a
dog ; and these two asked no better, when their work
was done, than to lie buried in the lush grasses on
the side of the canal, and watch the cumbrous vessels



drifting by, and bringing the crisp salt smell of the
sea amongst the blossoming scents of the country

A NTWERP, as all the world knows, is full at every
^ turn of old piles of stones, dark and ancient and
majestic, standing in crooked courts, jammed against
gateways and taverns, rising by the water's edge, with
bells ringing above them in the air, and ever and again
out of their arched doors a swell of music pealing.

There they remain, the grand old sanctuaries of the
past, shut in amidst the squalor, the hurry, the crowds,
the unloveliness and the commerce of the modern world;
and all day long the clouds drift and the birds circle,
and the winds sigh around them, and beneath the earth
at their feet there sleeps RUBENS.

And the greatness of the mighty Master still rests
upon Antwerp ; wherever we turn in its narrow streets
his glory lies therein, so that all mean things are thereby
transfigured; and as we pace slowly through the winding
ways, and by the edge of the stagnant water, and through
the noisome courts, his spirit abides with us, and the
heroic beauty of his visions is about us, and the stones
that once felt his footsteps and bore his shadow seem
to arise and speak of him with living voices. For the
city which is the tomb of Rubens still lives to us through
him, and him alone.

Without Rubens, what were Antwerp ? A dirty, dusky,
bustling mart, which no man would ever care to look
upon save the traders who do business on its wharves.
With Rubens, to the whole world of men it is a sacred
name, a sacred soil, a Bethlehem where a god of Art
saw light, a Golgotha where a god of Art lies dead.

It is so quiet there by that great white sepulchre
so quiet, save only when the organ peals, and the choir


cries aloud the Salve Regina or the Kyrie Eleison.
Sure no artist ever had a greater gravestone than that
pure marble sanctuary gives to him in the heart of his
birthplace in the chancel of St. Jacques ?

O nations ! closely should you treasure your great
men, for by them alone will the future know of you.
Flanders in her generations has been wise. In his
life she glorified this greatest of her sons, and in his
death she magnifies his name. But her wisdom is
very rare.

HTHE night was very wild. The lamps under the
* wayside crosses were blown out : the roads were
sheets of ice ; the impenetrable darkness hid every trace
of habitations ; there was no living thing abroad. All
the cattle were housed, and in all the huts and home-
steads men and women rejoiced and feasted. There
was only the dog out in the cruel cold old and famished
and full of pain, but with the strength and the patience
of a great love to sustain him in his search.

The trail of Nello's steps, faint and obscure as it was
under the new snow, went straightly along the accus-
tomed tracks into Antwerp. It was past midnight when
Patrasche traced it over the boundaries of the town and
into the narrow, tortuous, gloomy streets. It was all
quite dark in the town. Now and then some light
gleamed ruddily through the crevices of house-shutters,
or some group went homeward with lanterns chanting
drinking-songs. The streets were all white with ice :
the high walls and roofs loomed black against them.
There was scarce a saund save the riot of the winds
down the passages as they tossed the creaking signs and
shook the tall lamp-irons.

So many passers-by had trodden through and through
the snow, so many diverse paths had crossed and re-


crossed each other, that the dog had a hard task to
retain any hold on the track he followed. But he kept
on his way, though the cold pierced him to the bone,
and the jagged ice cut his feet, and the hunger in his
body gnawed like a rat's teeth. But he kept on his
way a poor, gaunt, shivering, drooping thing in the
frozen darkness, that no one pitied as he went and by
long patience traced the steps he loved into the very heart
of the burgh and up to the steps of the great cathedral.

" He is gone to the things that he loved," thought
Patrasche ; he could not understand, but he was full of
sorrow and of pity for the art-passion that to him was
so incomprehensible and yet so sacred.

The portals of the cathedral were unclosed after the
midnight mass. Some heedlessness in the custodians,
too eager to go home and feast or sleep, or too drowsy
to know whether they turned the keys aright, had left
one of the doors unlocked. By that accident the foot-
falls Patrasche sought had passed through into the
building, leaving the white marks of snow upon the dark
stone floor. By that slender white thread, frozen as it
fell, he was guided through the intense silence, through
the immensity of the vaulted space guided straight to
the gates of the chancel, and stretched there upon the
stones he found Nello. He crept up noiselessly, and
touched the face of the boy. " Didst thou dream that
I should be faithless and forsake thee ? I a dog ? "
said that mute caress.

The lad raised himself with a low cry and clasped
him close.

" Let us lie down and die together," he murmured.
" Men have no need of us, and we are all alone."

In answer, Patrasche crept closer yet, and laid his
head upon the young boy's breast. The great tears
stood in his brown sad eyes : not for himself for him-
self he was happy.


They lay close together in the piercing cold. The
blasts that blew over the Flemish dykes from the north-
ern seas were like waves of ice, which froze every living
thing they touched. The interior of the immense vault
of stone in which they were was even more bitterly chill
than the snow-covered plains without. Now and then
a bat moved in the shadows ; now and then a gleam of
light came to the ranks of carven figures. Under the
Rubens they lay together, quite still, and soothed almost
into a dreaming slumber by the numbing narcotic of the
cold. Together they dreamed of the old glad days
when they had chased each other through the flowering
grasses of the summer meadows, or sat hidden in the
tall bulrushes by the water's side, watching the boats
go seaward in the sun.

No anger had ever separated them ; no cloud had
ever come between them ; no roughness on the one
side, no faithlessness on the other, had ever obscured
their perfect love and trust. All through their short
lives they had done their duty as it had come to them,
and had been happy in the mere sense of living, and
had begrudged nothing to any man or beast, and had
been quite content because quite innocent. And in the
faintness of famine and of the frozen blood that stole
dully and slowly through their veins, it was of the days
they had spent together that they dreamed, lying there
in the long watches of the night of the Noel.

Suddenly through the darkness a great white radiance
streamed through the vastness of the aisles ; the moon,
that was at her height, had broken through the clouds ;
the snow had ceased to fall ; the light reflected from the
snow without was clear as the light of dawn. It fell
through the arches full upon the two pictures above,
from which the boy on his entrance had flung back the
veil : the Elevation and the Descent of the Cross were
for one instant visible as by day.


Nello rose to his feet and stretched his arms to them :
the tears of a passionate ecstasy glistened on the paleness
of his face.

" I have seen them at last ! " he cried aloud. " O
God, it is enongh ! "

His limbs failed under him, and he sank upon his
knees, still gazing upward at the majesty that he adored.
For a few brief moments the light illumined the divine
visions that had been denied to him so long light,
clear and sweet and strong as though it streamed from
the throne of Heaven.

Then suddenly it passed away : once more a great
darkness covered the face of Christ.

The arms of the boy drew close again the body of the

" We shall see His face there" he murmured ; " and
He will not part us, I think ; He will have mercy."

On the morrow, by the chancel of the cathedral, the
people of Antwerp found them both. They were both
dead : the cold of the night had frozen into stillness alike
the young life and the old. When the Christmas morn-
ing broke and the priests came to the temple, they saw
them lying thus on the stones together. Above, the veils
were drawn back from the great visions of Rubens, and
the fresh rays of the sunrise touched the thorn-crowned
head of the God.

As the day grew on there came an old, hard-featured
man, who wept as women weep.

"I was cruel to the lad," he muttered, "and now I
would have made amends yea, to the half of my sub-
stance and he should have been to me as a son."

There came also, as the day grew apace, a painter who
had fame in the world, and who was liberal of hand and
of spirit.

" I seek one who should have had the prize yesterday
had worth won," he said to the people, " a boy of rare


promise and genius. An old woodcutter on a fallen tree
at eventide that was all his theme. But there was
greatness for the future in it. I would fain find him, and
take him with me and teach him art."

Death had been more pitiful to them than longer life
would have been. It had taken the one in the loyalty of
love, and the other in the innocence of faith, from a world
which for love has no recompense, and for faith no ful-

All their lives they had been together, and in their
deaths they were not divided ; for when they were found
the arms of the boy were folded too closely around the
dog to be severed without violence, and the people of
their little village, contrite and ashamed, implored a
special grace for them, and, making them one grave, laid
them to rest there side by side for ever.


A ND indeed I loved France : still, in the misery of my
*~ life, I loved her for all that I had had from her.

I loved her for her sunny roads, for her cheery laughter,
for her vine-hung hamlets, for her contented poverty, for
her gay, sweet mirth, for her pleasant days, for her starry
nights, for her little bright groups at the village fountain,
for her old, brown, humble peasants at her wayside crosses,
for her wide, wind-swept plains all red with her radiant
sunsets. She had given me beautiful hours ; she is the
mother of the poor, who sings to them so that they forget
their hunger and their nakedness ; she had made me
happy in my youth. I was not ungrateful.

It was in the heats of September that I reached my
country. It was just after the day of Sedan. I heard
all along the roads, as I went, sad, sullen murmurs of our
bitter disasters. It was not the truth exactly that was
ever told at the poor wine-shops and about the harvest-
fields, but it was near enough to the truth to be horrible.

The blood-thirst which had been upon me ever since
that night when I found her chair empty seemed to burn
and seethe, till I saw nothing but blood in the air, in the
sun, in the water.

I REMEMBER in that ghastly time seeing a woman
put the match to a piece whose gunner had just
dropped dead. She fired with sure aim : her shot swept


straight into a knot of horsemen on the Neuilly road,
and emptied more than one saddle.

"You have a good sight," I said to her.

She smiled.

"This winter," she said slowly, "my children have all
died for want of food one by one, the youngest first.
Ever since then I want to hurt something always. Do
you understand?"

I did understand : I do not know if you do. It is just
these things that make revolutions.

YV7HEN I sit in the gloom here I see all the scenes of
** that pleasant life pass like pictures before me.

No doubt I was often hot, often cold, often footsore,
often ahungered and athirst : no doubt ; but all that has
faded now. I only see the old, lost, unforgotten bright-
ness ; the sunny roads, with the wild poppies blowing in
the wayside grass ; the quaint little red roofs and peaked
towers that were thrust upward out of the rolling woods ;
the clear blue skies, with the larks singing against the
sun ; the quiet, cool, moss-grown towns, with old dreamy
bells ringing sleepily above them ; the dull casements
opening here and there to show a rose like a girl's cheek,
and a girl's face like the rose ; the little wineshops
buried in their climbing vines and their tall, many-
coloured hollyhocks, from which sometimes a cheery
voice would cry, " Come, stay for a stoup of wine, and
pay us with a song."

Then, the nights when the people flocked to us, and
the little tent was lighted, and the women's and the
children's mirth rang out in peals of music ; and the men
vied with each other as to which should bear each of us
off to have bed and board under the cottage roof, or in
the old mill-house, or in the weaver's garret ; the nights
when the homely supper-board was brightened and thought


honoured by our presence ; when we told the black-eyed
daughter's fortunes, and kept the children round-eyed
and flushing red with wonder at strange tales, and smoked
within the ieaf-hung window with the father and his sons ;
and then went out, quietly, alone in the moonlight, and
saw the old cathedral white and black in the shadows
and the light ; and strayed a little into its dim aisles, and
watched the thorn-crowned God upon the cross, and in
the cool fruit-scented air, in the sweet, silent dusk, moved
softly with noiseless footfall and bent head, as though
the dead were there.

Ah, well ! they are all gone, those days and nights.
Begrudge me not their memory. I am ugly, and very
poor, and of no account ; and I die at sunrise, so they
say. Let me remember whilst I can : it is all oblivion
there. So they say.

YV7HETHER I suffered or enjoyed, loved or hated, is
of no consequence to any one. The dancing-dog
suffers intensely beneath the scourge of the stick, and is
capable of intense attachment to any one who is merciful
enough not to beat him ; but the dancing-dog and his woe
and his love are nothing to the world : I was as little.

There is nothing more terrible, nothing more cruel,

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 15 of 39)