1839-1908 Ouida.

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

. (page 17 of 39)
Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 17 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


men have called the powers of hell.



'"TO him the world was like the dark fathomless waste
* of waters shelving away to nameless shapeless perils
such as the old Greek mariners drew upon their charts
as compassing the shores they knew.

He had no light of knowledge by which to pursue in
hope or fancy the younger life that would be launched
into the untried realms. To him such separation was as
death.

He could not write ; he could not even read what was
written. He could only trust to others that all was well
with the boy.

He could have none of that mental solace which sup-
ports the scholar ; none of that sense of natural loveliness
which consoles the poet ; his mind could not travel be-
yond the narrow circlet of its own pain ; his eyes could
not see beauty everywhere from the green fly at his foot
to the sapphire mountains above his head ; he only
noticed the sunset to tell the weather ; he only looked
across the plain to see if the rain-fall would cross the
river. When the autumn crocus sank under his share,
to him it was only a weed best withered ; in hell he be-
lieved, and for heaven he hoped, but only dully, as things



234 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

certain that the priests knew ; but all consolations of the
mind or the fancy were denied to him. Superstitions, in-
deed, he had, but these were all ; sad-coloured fungi in
the stead of flowers.

The Italian has not strong imagination.

His grace is an instinct ; his love is a frenzy ; his
gaiety is rather joy than jest ; his melancholy is from
temperament, not meditation ; nature is little to him ;
and his religion and his passions alike must have phy-
sical indulgence and perpetual nearness, or they are
nothing.

He lived in almost absolute, solitude. Sometimes it
grew dreary, and the weeks seemed long.

Two years went by slowly.

Signa did not come home. The travel to and fro took
too much money, and he was engrossed in his studies,
and it was best so ; so Luigi Dini said, and Bruno let it
be. The boy did not ask to return. His letters were
very brief and not very coherent, and he forget to send
messages to old Teresina or to Palma. But there was
no fear for him.

The sacristan's friends under whose roof he was wrote
once in a quarter, and spoke well of him always, and said
that the professors did the same, and that a gentler lad
or one more wedded to his work they never knew. And
so Bruno kept his soul in patience, and said, " Do not
trouble him ; when he wishes he will come or if he want
anything. Let him be."

To those who have traversed far seas and many lands,
and who can bridge untravelled countries by the aid of
experience and of understanding, such partings have
pain, but a pain lessened by the certain knowledge of
their span and purpose. By the light of remembrance
or of imagination they can follow that which leaves
them.

But Bruno had no such solace.



SIGNA. 235

To him all that was indefinite was evil ; all that was
unfamiliar was horrible. It is the error of ignorance at
all times.



LJ E played for himself, for the air, for the clouds, for
the trees, for the sheep, for the kids, for the waters,
for the stones ; played as Pan did, and Orpheus and
Apollo.

His music came from heaven and went back to it.
What did it matter who heard it on earth?

A lily would listen to him as never a man could do ;
and a daffodil would dance with delight as never woman
could ; or he thought so at least, which was the same
thing. And he could keep the sheep all round him,
charmed and still, high above on the hillside, with the
sad pines sighing.

What did he want with people to hear ? He would
play for them ; but he did not care. If they felt it
wrongly, or felt it not at all, he would stop, and run
away.

"If they are deaf I will be dumb," he said. "The
dogs and the sheep and the birds are never deaf nor the
hills nor the flowers. It is only people that are deaf.
I suppose they are always hearing their own steps and
voices and wheels and windlasses and the cries of the
children and the hiss of the frying-pans. I suppose that
is why. Well, let them be deaf. Rusignuola and I do
not want them."

So he said to Palma under the south wall, watching a
butterfly, that folded was like an illuminated shield of
black and gold, and with its wings spread was like a
scarlet pomegranate blossom flying. Palma had asked
him why he had run away from the bridal supper of



236 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF OUIDA.

Griffeo, the coppersmith's son, just in the midst of his
music ; run away home, he and his violin.

"They were not deaf," resumed Palma. "But your
music was so sad and they were merry."

" I played what came to me," said Signa.

" But you are merry sometimes."

" Not in a little room with oilwicks burning, and a
stench of wine, and people round me. People always
make me sad."

"Why that?"

" Because I do not know : when a number of faces
are round me I seem stupid ; it is as if I were in a cage ;
I feel as if God went away, farther, farther, farther ! "

" But God made men and women."

"Yes. But I wonder if the trapped birds, and the
beaten dogs, and the smarting mules, and the bleeding
sheep think so."

"Oh, Signa!"

" I think they must doubt it," said Signa.

" But the beasts are not Christians, the priests say so,"
said Palma, who was a very true believer.

" I know. But I think they are. For they forgive.
We never do."

" Some of us do."

" Not as the beasts do. Agnoto's house-lamb, the
other day, licked his hand as he cut its throat. He told
me so."

" That was because it loved him," said Palma.

"And how can it love if it have not a soul?" said
Signa.

Palma munched her crust. This sort of meditation,
which Signa was very prone to wander in, utterly con-
fused her.

She could talk at need, as others could, of the young
cauliflowers, and the spring lettuces, and the chances of
the ripening corn, and the look of the budding grapes,



SIGN A. 237

and the promise of the weather, and the likelihood of
drought, and the Parocco's last sermon, and the gossips'
last history of the neighbours, and the varying prices of
fine and of coarse plaiting ; but anything else Palma
was more at ease with the heavy pole pulling against her,
and the heavy bucket coming up sullenly from the water-
hole.

She felt, when he spoke in this way, much as Bruno
did only far more intensely as if Signa went away
from her right away into the sky somewhere as the
swallows went when they spread their wings to the east,
or the blue wood-smoke when it vanished.

"You love your music better than you do Bruno, or
me, or anything, Signa," she said, with a little sorrow
that was very humble, and not in the least reproach-
ful.

"Yes," said Signa, with the unconscious cruelty of one
in whom Art is born predominant. " Do you know,
Palma," he said suddenly, after a pause " Do you know
I think I could make something beautiful, something
men would be glad of, if only I could be where they
would care for it."

" We do care," said the girl gently.

" Oh, in a way. That is not what I mean," said the
boy, with a little impatience which daily grew on him
more, for the associates of his life. "You all care ; you
all sing ; it is as the finches do in the fields, without
knowing at all what it is that you do. You are all like
birds. You pipe pipe pipe, as you eat, as you work,
as you play. But what music do we ever have in the
churches ? Who amongst you really likes all that music
when I play it off the old scores that Gigi says were
written by such great men, any better than you like the
tinkling of the mandolines when you dance in the thresh-
ing barns ? I am sure you all like the mandolines best.
I know nothing here. I do not even know whether what



238 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

I do is worth much or nothing. I think if I could hear

great music once if I could go to Florence "

" To Florence ? " echoed Palma.



"""THE contadino not seldom goes through all his life
* without seeing one league beyond the fields of his
labour, and the village that he is registered at, married at,
and buried at, and which is the very apex of the earth to
him. Women will spin and plait and hoe and glean within
half a dozen miles of some great city whose name is an art
glory in the mouths of scholars, and never will have seen
it, never once perhaps, from their birth down to their
grave. A few miles of vine-bordered roads, a breadth of
corn-land, a rounded hill, a little red roof under a mul-
berry tree, a church tower with a saint upon the roof,
and a bell that sounds over the walnut-trees these are
their world : they know and want to know no other.

A narrow life, no doubt, yet not without much to be
said for it. Without unrest, without curiosity, without
envy ; clinging like a plant to the soil ; and no more
willing to wander than the vinestakes which they thrust
into the earth.

To those who have put a girdle round the earth with
their footsteps, the whole world seems much smaller
than does the hamlet or farm of his affections to the
peasant : and how much poorer ! The vague, dreamful
wonder of an untravelled distance of an untracked
horizon has after all more romance in it than lies in the
whole globe run over in a year.

Who can ever look at the old maps in Herodotus or
Xenophon without a wish that the charm of those un-
known limits and those untraversed seas was ours ?
without an irresistible sense that to have sailed away, in



SIGNA. 239

vaguest hazard, into the endless mystery of the utterly
unknown, must have had a sweetness and a greatness in
it that is never to be extracted from "the tour of the
world in ninety days."



" CHE takes a whim for him ; a fancy of a month ; he
*^ thinks it heaven and eternity. She has ruined
him. His genius is burned up ; his youth is dead ; he
will do nothing more of any worth. Women like her
are like the Indian drugs, that sleep and kill. How is
that any fault of mine? He could see the thing she
was. If he will fling his soul away upon a creature
lighter than thistle-down, viler than a rattlesnake's
poison, poorer and quicker to pass than the breath of
a gnat whose blame is that except his own? There
was a sculptor once, you know, that fell to lascivious
worship of the marble image he had made ; well, poets
are not even so far wise as that. They make an image
out of the gossamer rainbow stuff of their own dreams,
and then curse heaven and earth because it dissolves to
empty air in their fond arms whose blame is that ? The
fools are made so "



"VT OT only the fly on the spoke takes praise to itself
-"^ for the speed of the wheel, but the stone that
would fain have hindered it, says, when the wheel un-
hindered has passed it, " Lo ! see how much I helped ! "



240 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.



""THE woman makes or mars the man : the man the
* woman. Mythology had no need of the Fates.

There is only one; the winged blind god that came
by night to Psyche.



A LL in a moment his art perished.
*"* When a human love wakes it crushes fame like a
dead leaf, and all the spirits and ministers of the mind
shrink away before it, and can no more allure, no more
console, but, sighing, pass into silence and are dumb.



f IFE, without a central purpose around which it can
"* revolve, is like a star that has fallen out of its orbit.
With a great affection or a great aim gone, the practical
life may go on loosely, indifferently, mechanically, but it
takes no grip on outer things, it has no vital interest, it
gravitates to nothing.



TVyf EN who dwell in solitude are superstitious. There
*** is no " chance " for them.

The common things of earth and air to them grow
portents : and it is easier for them to believe that the
universe revolves to serve the earth, than to believe that
men are to the universe as the gnats in the sunbeam to
the sun ; they can sooner credit that the constellations
are charged with their destiny, than that they can suffer
and die without arousing a sigh for them anywhere in
all creation. It is not vanity, as the mocker too hastily
thinks. It is the helpless, pathetic cry of the mortal to
the immortal nature from which he springs :

" Leave me not alone : confound me not with the
n:atter that perishes : I am full of pain have pity ! "

To be the mere sport of hazard as a dead moth is on



SIGNA. 241

the wind the heart of man refuses to believe it can be
so with him. To be created only to be abandoned he
will not think that the forces of existence are so cruel
and so unrelenting and so fruitless. In the world he
may learn to say that he thinks so, and is resigned to
it ; but in loneliness the penumbra of his own existence
lies on all creation, and the winds and the stars and the
daylight and night and the vast unknown mute forces of
life all seem to him that they must of necessity be either
his ministers or his destroyers.



/^F all the innocent things that die, the impossible
^-"^ dreams of the poet are the things that die with
most pain, and, perhaps, with most loss to humanity.
Those who are happy die before their dreams. This
is what the old Greek saying meant.

The world had not yet driven the sweet, fair follies
from Signa's head, nor had it yet made him selfish. If
he had lived in the age when Timander could arrest by
his melodies the tide of revolution, or when the harp of
the Persian could save Bagdad from the sword and flame
of Murad, all might have been well with him. But the
time is gone by when music or any other art was a king.
All genius now is, at its best, but a servitor well or ill fed.



C ILENTLY he put his hand out and grasped Signa's,
^ and led him into the Spanish Chapel, and sank on
his knees.

The glory of the morning streamed in from the cloister ;
all the dead gold and the faded hues were transfigured
by it ; the sunbeams shone on the face of Laura, the
deep sweet colours of Bronzino's Ccena glowed upward
in the vault amidst the shadows ; the company of the

Q



2 4 2 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF OUIDA.

blessed, whom the old painters had gathered there, cast
off the faded robes that the Ages had wrapped them in,
and stood forth like the tender spirits that they were, and
seemed to say, " Nay, we, and they who made us, we are
not dead, but only waiting."

It is all so simple and so foolish there ; the war-horses
of Taddeo that bear their lords to eternity as to a joust
of arms ; the heretic dogs of Memmi, with their tight
wooden collars ; the beauteous Fiammetta and her lover,
thronging amongst the saints ; the little house, where the
Holy Ghost is sitting, with the purified saints listening at
the door, with strings tied to their heads to lift them into
paradise ; it is all so quaint, so childlike, so pathetic, so
grotesque, like a set of wooden figures from its Noah's
Ark that a dying child has set out on its little bed, and
that are so stiff and ludicrous, and yet which no one well
can look at and be unmoved, by reason of the little cold
hand that has found beauty in them.

As the dying child to the wooden figures, so the dead
faith gives to the old frescoes here something that lies
too deep for tears ; we smile, and yet all the while we
say; if only we could believe like this; if only for us
the dead could be but sleeping !



TT was past midnight, and the moon had vanished be-
* hind her mountain, withdrawing her little delicate
curled golden horn, as if to blow with it the trumpet-call
of morning.



C UCH pretty, neat, ready lying as this would stand him
^ in better stead than all the high spirit in the world ;
which, after all, only serves to get a man into hot water
in this life and eternal fire in the next.



SIGNA. 243

T N the country of Virgil, life remains pastoral still. The
* field labourer of northern countries may be but a
hapless hind, hedging and ditching dolefully, or at best
serving a steam-beast with oil and fire ; but in the land
of the Georgics there is the poetry of agriculture still.

Materially it may be an evil and a loss political
economists will say so ; but spiritually it is a gain. A
certain peace and light lie on the people at their toil.
The reaper with his hook, the plougher with his oxen,
the girl who gleans amongst the trailing vines, the child
that sees the flowers tossing with the corn, the men that
sing to get a blessing on the grapes they have all a
certain grace and dignity of the old classic ways left with
them. They till the earth still with the simplicity of old,
looking straight to the gods for recompense. Great
Apollo might still come down amidst them and play to
them in their threshing-barns, and guide his milk-white
beasts over their furrows, and there would be nothing
in the toil to shame or burden him. It will not last. The
famine of a world too full will lay it waste ; but it is here
a little while longer still.



COR Discontent already creeps into each of these happy
* households, and under her fox-skin hood says, " Let
me in I am Progress."



'N most men and women, Love waking wakes, with
itself, the soul.
In poets Love waking kills it.



VW"HEN God gives genius, I think He makes the brain

** of some strange, glorious stuff, that takes all

strength out of the character, and all sight out of the



244 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF OUIDA.

eyes. Those artists they are like the birds we blind :
they sing, and make people weep for very joy to hear
them ; but they cannot see their way to peck the worms,
and are for ever wounding their breasts against the wires.
No doubt it is a great thing to have genius ; but it is a
sort of sickness after all ; and when love comes



T IPPO knew that wise men do not do harm to what-
ever they may hate.

They drive it on to slay itself.

So without blood-guiltiness they get their end, yet
stainless go to God.



T_I E was a little shell off the seashore that Hermes had
taken out of millions like it that the waves washed
up, and had breathed into, and had strung with fine
chords, and had made into a syrinx sweet for every human
ear.

Why not break the simple shell for sport? She did
not care for music. Did the gods care they could make
another.



C TART a lie and a truth together, like hare and hound ;
the lie will run fast and smooth, and no man will
ever turn it aside; but at the truth most hands will fling
a stone, and so hinder it for sport's sake, if they can.



O E heard the notes of a violin, quite faint and distant,
* A but sweet as the piping of a blackbird amongst the
white anemones of earliest spring.



SIGN A. 245

" "MATURE makes some folks false as it makes lizards
- ^ wriggle," said he. " Lippo is a lizard. No dog
ever caught him napping, though he looks so lazy in the
sun."



LJ E did not waver. He did not repine. He made no
* * reproach, even in his own thoughts. He had only
lost all the hope out of his life and all the pride of it.

But men lose these and live on ; women also.

He had built up his little kingdom out of atoms, little
by little ; atoms of time, of patience, of self-denial, of
hoarded coins, of snatched moments ; built it up little
by little, at cost of bodily labour and of bodily pain, as
the pyramids were built brick by brick by the toil and
the torment of unnoticed lives.

It was only a poor little nook of land, but it had been
like an empire won to him.

With his foot on its soil he had felt rich.

And now it was gone gone like a handful of thistle-
down lost on the winds, like a spider's web broken in a
shower of rain. Gone : never to be his own again.
Never.

He sat and watched the brook run on, the pied birds
come to drink, the throstle stir on the olive, the cloud
shadows steal over the brown, bare fields.

The red flush of sunrise faded. Smoke rose from the
distant roofs. Men came out on the lands to work. Bells
rang. The day began.

He got up slowly and went away ; looking backwards,
looking backwards, always.

Great leaders who behold their armed hosts melt like
snow, and great monarchs who are driven out discrowned
from the palaces of their fathers, are statelier figures and
have more tragic grace than he had ; only a peasant
leaving a shred of land, no bigger than a rich man's



246 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

dwelling-house will cover ; but vanquished leader or
exiled monarch never was more desolate than Bruno,
when the full sun rose and he looked his last look upon
the three poor fields, where for ever the hands of other
men would labour, and for ever the feet of other men
would wander.



LJ E only heard the toads cry to one another, feeling
* rain coming, " Crake ! crake ! crake ! We love a
wet world as men an evil way. The skies are going to
weep ; let us be merry. Crock ! crock ! crock ! "

And they waddled out slow, quaint, black things, with
arms akimbo, and stared at him with their shrewd, hard
eyes. They would lie snug a thousand years with a
stone and be quite happy.

Why were not men like that ?

Toads are kindly in their way, and will get friendly.
Only men seem to them such fools.

The toad is a fakeer, and thinks the beatitude of life
lies in contemplation. Men fret and fuss and fume, and
are for ever in haste ; the toad eyes them with contempt.



T WOULD die this hour, oh, so gladly, if I could be
* quite sure that my music would be loved, and be re-
membered. I do not know : there can be nothing like
it, I think : a thing you create, that is all your own, that
is the very breath of your mouth, and the very voice of
your soul ; which is all that is best in you, the very gift
of God ; and then to know that all this may be lost eter-
nally, killed, stifled, buried, just for want of men's faith
and a little gold ! I do not think there can be any loss
like it, nor any suffering like it, anywhere else in the
world. Oh, if only it would do any good, I would fling
my body into the grave to-morrow, happy, quite happy ;



SIGNA. 247

if only afterwards, they would sing my songs, all over the
earth, and just say, " God spoke to him ; and he has told
men what He said."



TVT O one can make much music with the mandoline, but
^ there is no other music, perhaps, which sounds so
fittingly to time and place, as do its simple sonorous
tender chords when heard through the thickets of rose-
laurel or the festoons of the vines, vibrating on the still-
ness of the night under the Tuscan moon. It would suit
the serenade of Romeo ; Desdemona should sing the
willow song to it, and not to the harp ; Paolo pleaded by
it, be sure, many a time to Francesca ; and Stradella
sang to it the passion whose end was death ; it is of all
music the most Italian, and it fills the pauses of the love-
songs softly, like a sigh or like a kiss.

Its very charm is, that it says so little. Love wants so
little said.

And the mandoline, though so mournful and full of
languor as Love is, yet can be gay with that caressing
joy born of beautiful nothings, which makes the laughter
of lovers the lightest-hearted laughter that ever gives
silver wings to time.



TT was a quaint, vivid, pretty procession, full of grace
and of movement classic and homely, pagan and
mediaeval, both at once bright in hue, rustic in garb,
poetic in feeling.

Teniers might have painted the brown girls and boys
leaping and singing on the turf, with their brandishing
boughs, their flaring torches, their bare feet, their tossing
arms ; but Leonardo or Guercino would have been
wanted for the face of the young singer whom they
carried, with the crown of the leaves and of the roses on



248 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

his drooped head, like the lotus flowers on the young
Antinous.

Piero di Cosimo, perhaps, in one of his greatest mo-
ments of brilliant caprice, might best have painted the
whole, with the background of the dusky hill-side ; and
he would have set it round with strange arabesques in
gold, and illumined amongst them in emblem the pipe of
the shepherd, and the harp of the muse, and the river-
rush that the gods would cut down and fill with their
breath and the music of heaven.

Bruno stood by, and let the innocent pageant pass,
with its gold of autumn foliage and its purples of crocus-
like colchicum.

He heard their voices crying in the court : " We have
got him we have brought him. Our Signa, who is
going to be great ! "



A LL life had been to him as the divining-rod of Aaron,
** blooming ever afresh with magic flowers. Now
that the flame of pain and passion burned it up, and left
a bare sear brittle bough, he could not understand.
Love is cruel as the grave.

The poet has embraced the universe in his visions,
and heard harmony in every sound, from deep calling



Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 17 of 39)