1839-1908 Ouida.

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

. (page 32 of 39)
Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 32 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

dren, I suppose you will rear them on science and the
Antonines ? "

"Perhaps on the open air and Homer."

/^ AN NOT you make them understand that we are not
^-' public artists to need reclames, nor yet sovereigns
to be compelled to submit to the microscope ? Is this
the meaning of civilisation to make privacy impossible,
to oblige every one to live under a lens ?

'"THE world was much happier when distinctions and
divisions were impassable. There are no sumptuary
laws now. What is the consequence ? That your bour-
geoise' ruins her husband in wearing gowns fit only for
a duchess, and your prince imagines it makes him popular
to look precisely like a cabman or a bailiff.

A GREAT love must be as exhaustless as the ocean
*^ in its mercy, and as profound in its compre-

YV7HAT was love if not one long forgiveness ? What
raised it higher than the senses if not its infinite
patience and endurance of all wrong ? What was its hope
of eternal life if it had not gathered strength in it enough
to rise above human arrogance and human vengeance ?

HTHERE is an infinite sense of peace in those cool,

vast, unworn mountain solitudes, with the rain-mists

sweeping like spectral armies over the level lands below,

and the sun-rays slanting heavenward, like the spears of

WANDA. 455

an angelic host. There is such abundance of rushing
water, of deep grass, of endless shade, of forest trees,
of heather and pine, of torrent and tarn ; and beyond
these are the great peaks that loom through breaking
clouds, and the clear cold air, in which the vulture
wheels and the heron sails ; and the shadows are so
deep, and the stillness is so sweet, and the earth seems
so green, and fresh, and silent, and strong. Nowhere
else can one rest so well ; nowhere else is there so fit a
refuge for all the faiths and fancies that can find a home
no longer in the harsh and hurrying world ; there is
room for them all in the Austrian forests, from the Erl-
King to Ariel and Oberon.

" VOU think any sin maybe forgiven?" he said ir-
relevantly, with his face averted.

" That is a very wide question. I do not think St.
Augustine himself could answer it in a word or in a
moment. Forgiveness, I think, would surely depend
on repentance."

" Repentance in secret would that avail ?

" Scarcely would it ? if it did not attain some
sacrifice. It would have to prove its sincerity to be

" You believe in public penance ? " said Sabran, with
some impatience and contempt.

" Not necessarily public," she said, with a sense of
perplexity at the turn his words had taken. " But of
what use is it for one to say he repents unless in some
measure he makes atonement ? "

" But where atonement is impossible ? "

"That could never be."

" Yes. There are crimes whose consequences can
never be undone. What then ? Is he who did them
shut out from all hope ? "


" I am no casuist," she said, vaguely troubled. " But
if no atonement were possible I still think nay, I am
sure a sincere and intense regret which is, after all,
what we mean by repentance, must be accepted, must
be enough."

" Enough to efface it in the eyes of one who had
never sinned ? "

"Where is there such a one? I thought you spoke
of heaven."

" I spoke of earth. It is all we can be sure to have
to do with ; it is our one poor heritage."

" I hope it is but an antechamber which we pass
through, and fill with beautiful things, or befoul with
dust and blood, at our own will."

"Hardly at our own will. In your antechamber a
capricious tyrant waits us all at birth. Some come in
chained ; some free."

" T^O not compare the retreat of the soldier tired of
his wounds, of the gambler weaned by his losses,
with the poet or the saint who is at peace with himself
and sees all his life long what he at least believes to
be the smile of God. Loyola and Francis d'Assisi are
not the same thing, are not on the same plane."

" What matter what brought them," she said softly,
" if they reach the same goal ? "

<; "V"OU bade me do good at Romans. Candidly, I see
* no way to do it except in saving a crew off a wreck,
which is not an occasion that presents itself every week.
I cannot benefit these people materially, since I am poor;
I cannot benefit them morally, because I have not their
faith in the things unseen, and I have not their morality

WANDA. 457

in the things tangible. They are God-fearing, infinitely
patient, faithful in their daily lives, and they reproach no
one for their hard lot, cast on an iron shore and forced
to win their scanty bread at the risk of their lives. They
do not murmur either at duty or mankind. What should
I say to them ? I, whose whole life is one restless im-
patience, one petulant mutiny against circumstance ?
If I talk with them I only take them what the world
always takes into solitude discontent. It would be a
cruel gift, yet my hand is incapable of holding out any
other. It is a homely saying that no blood comes out of
a stone ; so, out of a life saturated with the ironies, the
contempt, the disbelief, the frivolous philosophies, the
hopeless negations of what we call Society, there can be
drawn no water of hope and charity, for the well-head
belief is dried up at its source. Some pretend, indeed,
to find in humanity what they deny to exist as Deity, but
I should be incapable of the illogical exchange. It is to
deny that the seed sprang from a root ; it is to replace a
yrand and illimitable theism by a finite and vainglorious
bathos. Of all the creeds that have debased mankind,
the new creed that would centre itself in man seems to
me the poorest and the most baseless of all. If humanity
be but a vibrion, a conglomeration of gases, a mere mould
holding chemicals, a mere bundle of phosphorus and car-
bon, how can it contain the elements of worship ? what
matter when or how each bubble of it bursts ? This is
the weakness of all materialism when it attempts to ally
itself with duty. It becomes ridiculous. The carpi diem
of the classic sensualists, the morality of the ' Satyricon '
or the ' Decamerone,' are its only natural concomitants
and outcome ; but as yet it is not honest enough to say
this. It affects the soothsayer's long robe, the sacer-
dotal frown, and is a hypocrite."

In answer she wrote back to him :

" I do not urge you to have my faith : what is the use?


Goethe was right. It is a question between a man and
his own heart. No one should venture to intrude there.
But taking life even as you do, it is surely a casket of
mysteries. May we not trust that at the bottom of it, as
at the bottom of Pandora's, there may be hope ? I wish
again to think with Goethe that immortality is not an
inheritance, but a greatness to be achieved like any other
greatness, by courage, self-denial, and purity of purpose
a reward allotted to the just. This is fanciful, may be, but
it is not illogical. And without being either a Christian or
a Materialist, without beholding either majesty or divinity
in humanity, surely the best emotion that our natures
know pity must be large enough to draw us to console
where we can, and sustain where we can, in view of the
endless suffering, the continual injustice, the appalling
contrasts, with which the world is full. Whether man
be the vibrion or the heir to immortality, the bundle of
carbon or the care of angels, one fact is indisputable : he
suffers agonies, mental and physical, that are wholly out
of proportion to the brevity of his life, while he is too often
weighted from infancy with hereditary maladies, both of
body and of character. This is reason enough, I think,
for us all to help each other, even though we feel, as you
feel, that we are as lost children, wandering in a great
darkness, with no thread or clue to guide us to the end."

" \V7E do not cultivate music one-half enough among
" the peasantry. It lightens labour ; it purifies and
strengthens the home life; it sweetens black bread. Do
you remember that happy picture of Jordaens' 'Where
the old sing, the young chirp,' where the old grandfather
and grandmother, and the baby in its mother's arms, and
the hale five-year-old boy, and the rough servant, are all
joining in the same melody, while the goat crops the
vine-leaves off the table? I should like to see every

WANDA. 459

cottage interior like that when the work was done. I
would hang up an etching from Jordaens where you
would hang up, perhaps, the programme of Proudhon."

Then she walked back with him through the green
sun-gleaming woods.

" I hope that I teach them content," she continued.
" It is the lesson most neglected in our day. ' Niemand
will ein Schuster seinj Jedermann ein Dichter? It is
true we are very happy in our surroundings. A moun-
taineer's is such a beautiful life, so simple, healthful)
hardy, and fine ; always face to face with nature. I try
to teach them what an inestimable joy that alone is. I
do not altogether believe in the prosaic views of rural
life. It is true that the peasant digging his trench sees
the clod, not the sky ; but then when he does lift his
head the sky is there, not the roof, not the ceiling. That
is so much in itself. And here the sky is an everlasting
grandeur ; clouds and domes of snow are blent together.
When the stars are out above the glaciers how serene the
night is, how majestic ! even the humblest creature feels
lifted up into that eternal greatness. Then you think of
the home-life in the long winters as dreary ; but it is not
so. Over away there, at Lahn, and other places on the
Hallstadtersee, they do not see the sun for five months ;
the wall of rock behind them shuts them from all light
of day ; but they live together, they dance, they work.
The young men recite poems, and the old men tell tales
of the mountains and the French war, and they sing
the homely songs of the Schnader-hiipfeln. Then when
winter passes, when the sun comes up again over the
wall of rocks, when they go out into the light once more,
what happiness it is ! One old man' said to me, 'It is
like being born again ! ' and another said, ' Where it is
always warm and light I doubt they forget to thank God
for the sunshine ; ' and quite a young child said, all of his
own accord, ' The primroses live in the dusk all the winter,


like us, and then when the sun comes up we and they
run out together, and the Mother of Christ has set the
water and the little birds laughing.' I would rather have
the winter of Lahn than the winter of Belleville."

'F the Venus de Medici could be animated into life
women would only remark that her waist was large.

^EDIUM is the most terrible and the most powerful
foe love ever encounters.

" T IFE is after all like baccarat or billiards," he said to
himself. " It is no use winning unless there be a
galerie to look on and applaud."

""TIME hung on his hands like a wearisome wallet of


When all the habits of life are suddenly rent asunder,
they are like a rope cut in two. They may be knotted
together clumsily, or they may be thrown altogether aside
nnd a new strand woven, but they will never be the same
thing again.

""THE greatness of a great race is a thing far higher
* than mere pride. Its instincts are noble and supreme,
its obligations are no less than its privileges ; it is a great
light which streams backward through the darkness of
the ages, and if by that light you guide not your footsteps,
then are you thrice accursed, holding as you do that lamp
of honour in your hands.

WANDA. 461

"CVEN to those who care nothing for Society, and dis-
*~ l like the stir and noise of the world about them, there
is still always a vague sense of depression in the dis-
persion of a great party ; the house seems so strangely
silent, the rooms seem so strangely empty, servants
flitting noiselessly here and there, a dropped flower, a
fallen jewel, an oppressive scent from multitudes of
fading blossoms, a broken vase perhaps, or perhaps a
snapped fan these are all that are left of the teeming
life crowded here one little moment ago. Though one
may be glad they are gone, yet there is a certain sadness
in it. " Le lendemain de la fete" keeps its pathos, even
though \\\&fite itself has possessed no poetry and no power
to amuse.

TN every one of her villages she had her schools on
this principle, and they throve, and the children with
them. Many of these could not read a printed page,
but all of them could read the shepherd's weather-glass
in sky and flower ; all of them knew the worm that was
harmful to the crops, the beetle that was harmless in
the grass ; all knew a tree by a leaf, a bird by a feather,
an insect by a grub.

Modern teaching makes a multitude of gabblers. She
did not think it necessary for the little goat-herds, and
dairymaids, and foresters, and charcoal-burners, and
sennerins, and carpenters, and cobblers, to study the
exact sciences or draw casts from the antique. She
was of opinion, with Pope, that " a little learning is a
dangerous thing," and that a smattering of it will easily
make a man morose and discontented, whilst it takes a
very deep and lifelong devotion to it to teach a man
content with his lot. Genius, she thought, is too rare a
thing to make it necessarv to construct village schools


for it, and whenever or wherever it comes upon earth,
it will surely be its own master.

She did not believe in culture for little peasants who
have to work for their daily bread at the plough-tail or
with the reaping-hook. She knew that a mere glimpse
of a Canaan of art and learning is cruelty to those who
never can enter into and never even can have leisure to
merely gaze on it. She thought that a vast amount of
useful knowledge is consigned to oblivion whilst children
are taught to waste their time in picking up the crumbs
of a great indigestible loaf of artificial learning. She
had her scholars taught their "ABC," and that was all.
Those who wished to write were taught, but writing was
not enforced. What they were made to learn was the
name and use of every plant in their own country the
habits and ways of all animals ; how to cook plain food
well, and make good bread ; how to brew simples from
the herbs of their fields and woods, and how to discern
the coming weather from the aspect of the skies, the
shutting-up of certain blossoms, and the time of day
from those " poor men's watches," the opening flowers.
In all countries there is a great deal of useful household
and out-of-door lore that is fast being choked out of
existence under books and globes, and which, unless it
passes by word of mouth from generation to genera-
tion, is quickly and irrevocably lost. All this lore she
had cherished by her school-children. Her boys were
taught in addition any useful trade they liked boot-
making, crampon-making, horse-shoeing, wheel-making,
or carpentry. This trade was made a pastime to each.
The little maidens learned to sew, to cook, to spin, to
card, to keep fowls and sheep and cattle in good healthj
and to know all poisonous plants and berries by sight.

"I think it is what is wanted," she said. "A little
peasant child does not need to be able to talk of the
corolla and the spathe, but he does want to recognise at

WANDA. 463

a glance the flower that will give him healing and the
berries that will give him death. His sister does not in
the least require to know why a kettle boils, but she
does need to know when a warm bath will be good for
a sick baby or when hurtful. We want a new genera-
tion to be helpful, to have eyes, and to know the beauty
of silence. I do not mind much whether my children
reap or not. The labourer that reads turns Socialist,
because his brain cannot digest the hard mass of won-
derful facts he encounters. But I believe every one of
my little peasants, being wrecked like Crusoe, would
prove as handy as he."

" /^AN you inform me how it is that women possess
^^ tenacity of will in precise proportion to the frivo-
lity of their lives ? All these butterflies have a volition
of iron."

" It is egotism. Intensely selfish people are always
very decided as to what they wish. That is in itself a
great force they do not waste their energies in con-
sidering the good of others."

" T AM not like you, my dear Olga," she wrote to her
* relative the Countess Brancka. " I am not easily
amused. That course effrMe of the great world carries
you honestly away with it ; all those incessant balls,
those endless visits, those interminable conferences on
your toilettes, that continual circling of human butter-
flies round you, those perpetual courtships of half a score
of young men ; it all diverts you. You are never tired
of it ; you cannot understand any life outside its pale.


All your days, whether they pass in Paris or Petersburg!!,
at Trouville, at Biarritz, or at Vienna or Scheveningen,
are modelled on the same lines ; you must have excite-
ment as you have your cup of chocolate when you wake.
What I envy you is that the excitement excites you.
When I was amidst it I was not excited ; I was seldom
ever diverted. See the misfortune that it is to be born
with a grave nature ! I am as serious as Marcus
Antoninus. You will say that it comes of having learned
Latin and Greek. I do not think so ; I fear I was
born unamusable. I only truly care about horses and
trees, and they are both grave things, though a horse
can be playful enough sometimes when he is allowed to
forget his servitude. Your friends, the famous tailors,
send me admirably-chosen costumes which please that
sense in me which Titians and Vandycks do (I do not
mean to be profane) - } but I only put them on as the
monks do their frocks. Perhaps I am very unworthy of
them ; at least, I cannot talk toilette as you can with
ardour a whole morning and every whole morning of
your life. You will think I am laughing at you ; indeed
I am not. I envy your faculty of sitting, as I am sure
you are sitting now, in a straw chair on the shore, with a
group of boulevardiers around you, and a crowd making a
double hedge to look at you when it is your pleasure to
pace the planks. My language is involved. I do not
envy you the faculty of doing it, of course ; I could do
it myself to-morrow. I envy you the faculty of finding
amusement in doing it, and finding flattery in the double

" "N"^ doubt a love of nature is a triple armour against

self-love. How can I say how right I think your

system with these children ? You seem not to believe

me. There is only one thing in which I differ with you;

WANDA. 465

you think the ' eyes that see ' bring content. Surely not !
surely not !"

" It depends on what they see. When they are wide
open in the woods and fields, when they have been taught
to see how the tree-bee forms her cell and the mole
her fortress, how the warbler builds his nest for his
love and the water-spider makes his little raft, how the
leaf comes forth from the hard stern and the fungi from
the rank mould, then I think that sight is content con-
tent in the simple life of the woodland place, and in
such delighted wonder that the heart of its own accord
goes up in peace and praise to the Creator. The printed
page may teach envy, desire, coveteousness, hatred, but
the Book of Nature teaches resignation, hope, willing-
ness to labour and live, submission to die. The world
has gone farther and farther from peace since larger
and larger have grown its cities, and its shepherd kings
are no more."

CHE remained still, her hands folded on her knees,
^ her face set as though it were cast in bronze. The
great bedchamber, with its hangings of pale blue plush
and its silver-mounted furniture, was dim and shadowy
in the greyness of a midwinter afternoon. Doors opened,
here to the bath and dressing chambers, there to the ora-
tory, yonder to the apartments of Sabran. She looked
across to the last, and a shudder passed over her; a
sense of sickness and revulsion came on her.

She sat still and waited ; she was too weak to go
farther than this room. She was wrapped in a long
loose gown of white satin, lined and trimmed with
sable. There were black bearskins beneath her feet;
the atmosphere was warmed by hot air, and fragrant
with some bowls full of forced roses, which her women

2 G


had placed there at noon. The grey light of the fading
afternoon touched the silver scrollwork of the bed, and
the silver frame of one large mirror, and fell on her
folded hands and on the glister of their rings. Her
head leaned backward against the high carved ebony of
her chair. Her face was stern and bitterly cold, as that
of Maria Theresa when she signed the loss of Silesia.

He approached from his own apartments, and came
timidly and with a slow step forward. He did not
dare to salute her, or go near to her ; he stood like a
banished man, disgraced, a few yards from her seat.

Two months had gone by since he had seen her.
When he entered he read on her features that he must
leave all hope behind.

Her whole frame shrank within her as she saw him
there, but she gave no sign of what she felt. Without
looking at him she spoke, in a voice quite firm, though
it was faint from feebleness.

" I have but little to say to you, but that little is best
said, not written."

He did not reply ; his eyes were watching her with a
terrible appeal, a very agony of longing. They had not
rested on her for two months. She had been near the
gates of the grave, within the shadow of death. He
would have given his life for a word of pity, a touch, a
regard and he dared not approach her !

She dared not look at him. After that first glance,
in which there had been so much of horror, of revulsion,
she did not once look towards him. Her face had the
immutability of a mask of stone ; so many wretched
days and haunted nights had she spent nerving herself
for this inevitable moment that no emotion was visible
in her ; into her agony she had poured her pride, and
it sustained her, as the plaster poured into the dry
bones at Pompeii makes the skeleton stand erect, the
ashes speak.

WANDA. 467

" After that which you have told me," she said, after
a moment's silence in which he fancied she must hear
the throbbing of his heart, "you must know that my
life cannot be lived out beside yours. The law gives
you many rights, no doubt, but I believe you will not
be so base as to enforce them."

" I have no rights ! " he muttered. " I am a criminal
before the law. The law will free you from me, if you

" I do not choose," she said coldly ; " you understand
me ill. I do not carry my wrongs or my woes to others.
What you have told me is known only to Prince
Vdsdrhely and to the Countess Brancka. He will be
silent ; he has the power to make her so. The world
need know nothing. Can you think that I shall be its
informant ? "

" If you divorce me " he murmured.

A quiver of bitter anger passed over her features, but
she retained her self-control.

" Divorce ? What could divorce do for me ? Could
it destroy the past ? Neither Church or Law can undo
what you have done. Divorce would make me feel that
in the past I had been your mistress, not your wife, that
is all."

She breathed heavily, and again pressed her hand on
her breast.

" Divorce ! " she repeated. " Neither priest nor
judge can efface a past as you clean a slate with a
sponge ! No power, human or divine, can free me,
purify me, wash your dishonoured blood from your
children's veins."

She almost lost her self-control; her lips trembled,
her eyes were full of flame, her brow was black with
passion. With a violent effort she restrained herself;
invective or reproach seemed to her low and coarse
and vile.


He was silent ; his greatest fear, the torture of which
had harassed him sleeping and waking ever since he
had placed his secret in her hands, was banished at her
words. She would seek no divorce the children would
not be disgraced the world of men would not learn his
shame ; and yet as he heard a deeper despair than any
he had ever known came over him. She was but as
those sovereigns of old who scorned the poor tribunals
of man's justice because they held in their own might the
power of so much heavier chastisement.

" I shall not seek for a legal separation," she re-
sumed ; " that is to say, I shall not, unless you force

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 32 of 39)