1839-1908 Ouida.

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

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cattle and slept like pigs, and looked but once out to the
woods and waters of the landscapes round for one hun-
dred times that they looked at their hidden silver in an
old delf jug, or at their tawdry coloured prints of St. Vic-
torian or St. Scaivola.

But yet much of the beauty and the nobility of the old,
simple, restful, rich-hued life of the past still abode there,
and remained with them. In the straight, lithe form of
their maidens, untrammelled by modern garb, and moving
with the free majestic grace of forest does. In the vast,
dim, sculptured chambers, where the grandnm span by


the wood fire, and the little children played in the shadows,
and the lovers whispered in the embrasured window. In
the broad market-place, where the mules cropped the
clover, and the tawny awnings caught the sunlight, and
the white caps of the girls framed faces fitted for the
pencils of missal painters, and the flush of colour from
mellow wall-fruits and grape-clusters glanced amidst the
shelter of deepest, freshest green. In the perpetual pre-
sence of their cathedral, which, through sun and storm,
through frost and summer, through noon and midnight,
stood there amidst them, and watched the galled oxen
tread their painful way, and the scourged mules droop
their humble heads, and the helpless, harmless flocks go
forth to the slaughter, and the old weary lives of the men
and women pass through hunger and cold to the grave,
and the sun and the moon rise and set, and the flowers
and the children blossom and fade, and the endless years
come and go, bringing peace, bringing war ; bringing
harvest, bringing famine ; bringing life, bringing death ;
and, beholding these, still said to the multitude in its
terrible irony, " Lo ! your God is Love."

This little town lay far from the great Paris highway
and all greatly frequented tracks. It was but a short
distance from the coast, but near no harbour of greater
extent than such as some small fishing village had made
in the rocks for the trawlers. Few strangers ever came
to it, except some wandering painters or antiquaries.
It sent its apples and eggs, its poultry and honey, its
colza and corn to the use of the great cities ; but it was
rarely that any of its own people went thither.

Now and then some one of the oval-faced, blue-eyed,
lithe-limbed maidens of its little homely households would
sigh and flush and grow restless, and murmur of Paris ;
and would steal out in the break of a warm grey morning
whilst only the birds were still waking ; and would patter
away in her wooden shoes over the broad, white, southern


road, with a stick over her shoulder, and a bundle of all
her worldly goods upon the stick. And she would look
back often, often, as she went ; and when all was lost in
the blue haze of distance save the lofty spire which she
still saw through her tears, she would say in her heart,
with her lips parched and trembling, " I will come back
again. I will come back again."

But none such ever did come back.

They came back no more than did the white sweet
sheaves of the lilies which the women gathered and sent
to be bought and sold in the city to gleam one faint
summer night in a gilded balcony, and to be flung out
the next morning, withered and dead.

One amongst the few who had thus gone whither the
lilies went, and of whom the people would still talk as
their mules paced homewards through the lanes at twilight,
had been Reine Flamma, the daughter of the miller of

" "THERE are only t\vo trades in a city," said the actors
* to her, with a smile as bitter as her own, " only
two trades to buy souls and to sell them. What business
have you here, who do neither the one nor the other?"

There was music still in this trampled reed of the
river, into which the gods had once bidden the stray
winds and the wandering waters breathe their melody ;
but there, in the press, the buyers and sellers only saw in
it a frail thing of the sand and the stream, only made to
be woven for barter, or bind together the sheaves of the
roses of pleasure.

A RT was to him as mother, brethren, mistress, off-
& spring, religion all that other men hold dear.
He had none of these, he desired none of them ; and his
genius sufficed to him in their stead.


It was an intense and reckless egotism, made alike
cruel and sublime by its intensity and purity, like the
egotism of a mother in her child. To it, as the mother
to her child, he would have sacrificed every living crea-
ture ; but to it also, like her, he would have sacrified his
very existence as unhesitatingly. But it was an egotism
which, though merciless in its tyranny, was as pure as
snow in its impersonality ; it was untainted by any grain
of avarice, of vanity, of selfish desire ; it was independent
of all sympathy ; it was simply and intensely the passion
for immortality : that sublime selfishness, that superb
madness, of all great minds.

Art had taken him for its own, as Demeter, in the days
of her desolation, took the child Demophoon to nurture
him as her own on the food of gods, and to plunge
him through the flames of a fire that would give him im-
mortal life. As the pusillanimous and sordid fears of the
mortal mother lost to the child for evermore the posses-
sion of Olympian joys and of perpetual youth, so did the
craven and earthly cares of bodily needs hold the artist
back from the radiance of the life of the soul, and drag
him from the purifying fires. Yet he had not been utterly
discouraged ; he strove against the Metanira of circum-
stance ; he did his best to struggle free from the mortal
bonds that bound him ; and, as the child Demophoon
mourned for the great goddess that had nurtured him,
refusing to be comforted, so did he turn from the base
consolations of the senses and the appetites, and beheld
ever before his sight the ineffable majesty of that Mater
Dolorosawho once and for ever had anointed him as her

A/T EN did not believe in him ; what he wrought sad-
"* dened and terrified them ; they turned aside to
those who fed them on simpler and on sweeter food.


His works were great, but they were such as the public
mind deems impious. They unveiled human corruption
too nakedly, and they shadowed forth visions too exalted,
and satires too unsparing, for them to be acceptable to
the multitude. They were compounded of an idealism
clear and cold as crystal, and of a reality cruel and
voluptuous as love. They were penetrated with an
acrid satire and an intense despair : the world caring
only for a honied falsehood and a gilded gloss in every
art, would have none of them.

" CEE you what he lacks is only the sinew that gold
^ gives. What he has done is great. The world
rightly seeing must fear it ; and fear is the highest
homnge the world ever gives. But he is penniless ;
and he has many foes ; and jealousy can with so much
ease thrust aside the greatness which it fears into ob-
scurity, when that greatness is marred by the failures
and the feebleness of poverty. Genius scorns the power
of gold : it is wrong ; gold is the war-scythe on its chariot,
which mows down the millions of its foes and gives free
passage to the sun-coursers with which it leaves those
heavenly fields of light for the gross battle-fields of earth."

TT 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 fruit-
fulness ; the sorcery of the thyrsus is still his, though

The powers of lost dominions 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
aed 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.

" T DO not know," she said, wearily afresh. " Marcellin
says that every God is deaf. He must be deaf
or very cruel. Look ; everything lives in pain ; and yet
no God pities and makes an end of the earth. I would
if I were He. Look at dawn, the other day, I was
out in the wood. I came upon a little rabbit in a trap ;
a little, pretty, soft black-and-white thing, quite young.
It was screaming in its horrible misery ; it had been
screaming all night. Its thighs were broken in the iron
teeth ; the trap held it tight; it could not escape, it could
only scream scream scream. All in vain. When I
had set it free it was mangled as if a wolf had gnawed
it; the iron teeth had bitten through the fur, and the
flesh, and the bone ; it had lost so much blood, and it


was in so much pain, that it could not live. I laid it
down in the bracken, and put water to its mouth, and
did what I could ; but it was of no use. It had been too
much hurt. It died as the sun rose ; a little, harmless,
shy, happy thing, you know, that never killed any creature,
and only asked to nibble a leaf or two, or. sleep in a little
round hole, and run about merry and free. How can one
care for a God since He lets these things be ?"

Arslan smiled as he heard.

" Child, men care for a god only as a god means a
good to them. Men are heirs of heaven, they say ; and,
in right of their heritage, they make life hell to every
living thing that dares dispute the world with them. You
do not understand that, tut ! You are not human then.
If you were human, you would begrudge a blade of grass
to a rabbit, and arrogate to yourself a lease of immor-

" (^F a winter night," she said, slowly, " I have heard
^-^ old Pitchou read aloud to Flamma, and she reads
of their God, the one they hang everywhere on the crosses
here ; and the story ran that the populace scourged and
nailed to death the one whom they knew afterwards, when
too late, to have been the great man that they looked for,
and that, being bidden to make their choice of one to
save, they chose to ransom and honour a thief: one
called Barabbas. Is it true ? if the world's choice were
wrong once, why not twice?"

Arslan smiled ; the smile she knew so well, and which
had no more warmth than the ice floes of his native seas.
"Why not twice? Why not a thousand times? A
thief has the world's sympathies always. It is always
the Barabbas the trickster in talent, the forger of stolen
wisdom, the bravo of political crime, the huckster of
plundered thoughts, the charlatan of false art, whom the


vox populi elects and sets free, and sends on his way
rejoicing. 'Will ye have Christ or Barabbas?' Every
generation is asked the same question, and every gene-
ration gives the same answer; and scourges the divinity
out of its midst, and finds its idol in brute force and low

She only dimly comprehended, not well knowing why
her words had thus roused him. She pondered awhile,
then her face cleared.

"But the end?" she asked. "The dead God is the
God of all these people round us now, and they have
built great places in His honour, and they bow when they
pass His likeness in the highway or the marketplace.
But with Barabbas what was the end ? It seems that
they loathe and despise him?"

Arslkn laughed a little.

"His end? In Syria may be the vultures picked his
bones, where they lay whitening on the plains those
times were primitive, the world was young. But in our
day Barabbas lives and dies in honour, and has a tomb
that stares all men in the face, setting forth his virtues,
so that all who run may read. In our day Barabbas
the Barabbas of money-greeds and delicate cunning, and
the theft which has risen to science, and the assassina-
tion that kills souls and not bodies, and the crime that
deals moral death and not material death our Barabbas,
who is crowned Fraud in the place of mailed Force, lives
always in purple and fine linen, and ends in the odours of
sanctity with the prayers of priests over his corpse."

He spoke with a certain fierce passion that rose in him
whenever he thought of that world which had rejected
him, and had accepted so many others, weaker in brain
and nerve, but stronger in one sense, because more dis-
honest ; and as he spoke he went straight to a wall on
his right, where a great sea of grey paper was stretched,
untouched and ready to his hand.


She would have spoken, but he made a motion to

" Hush ! be quiet," he said to her, almost harshly, " I
have thought of something."

And he took the charcoal and swept rapidly with it
over the dull blank surface till the vacancy glowed with
life. A thought had kindled in him ; a vision had arisen
before him.

The scene around him vanished utterly from his sight.
The grey stone walls, the square windows through which
the fading sun-rays fell ; the level pastures and sullen
streams, and paled skies without, all faded away as
though they had existed only in a dream.

All the empty space about him became peopled with
many human shapes that for him had breath and being,
though no other eye could have beheld them. The old
Syrian world of eighteen hundred years before arose and
glowed before him. The things of his own life died
away, and in their stead he saw the fierce flame of
eastern suns, the gleaming range of marble palaces, the
purple flush of pomegranate flowers, the deep colour of
oriental robes, the soft silver of hills olive crested, the
tumult of a city at high festival. And he could not rest
until all he thus saw in his vision he had rendered as far
as his hand could render it ; and what he drew was this.

A great thirsty, heated, seething crowd ; a crowd that
had manhood and womanhood, age and infancy, youths
and maidens within its ranks ; a crowd in whose faces
every animal lust and every human passion were let
loose ; a crowd on which a noon sun without shadow
streamed ; a sun which parched and festered and engen-
dered all corruption in the land on which it looked.
This crowd was in a city, a city on whose flat roofs
the myrtle and the cistus bloomed ; above whose walls
the plumes of olives waved ; upon whose distant slopes
the darkling cedar groves rose straight against the sky,


and on whose lofty temple plates of gold glistened against
the shining heavens. This crowd had scourges, and stones,
and goads in their hands ; and in their midst they led
one clothed in white, whose head was thorn-crowned,
and whose eyes were filled with a god's pity and a
man's reproach ; and him they stoned, and lashed, and

And triumphant in the throng, whose choice he was,
seated aloft upon men's shoulders, with a purple robe
thrown on his shoulders, there sat a brawny, grinning,
bloated, jibbering thing, with curled lips and savage
eyes, and satyr's leer : the creature of greed, of lust, of
obscenity, of brutality, of avarice, of desire. This thing
the people followed, rejoicing exceedingly, content in the
guide whom they had chosen, victorious in the fiend for
whom they spurned a deity ; crying, with wide open
throats and brazen lungs, " Barabbas ! "

There was not a form in all this close-packed throng
which had not a terrible irony in it, which was not in
itself a symbol of some appetite or of some vice, for
which women and men abjure the godhead in them.

A gorged drunkard lay asleep with his amphora broken
beneath him, the stream of the purple wine lapped eagerly
by ragged children. A money-changer had left the receipt
of custom, eager to watch and shout, and a thief clutched
both hands full of the forsaken coins and fled.

A miser had dropped a bag of gold, and stopped to
catch at all the rolling pieces, regardless in his greed
how the crowd trampled and trod on him. A mother
chid and struck her little brown curly child, because he
stretched his arms and turned his face towards the thorn-
crowned captive.

A priest of the temple, with a blood-stained knife thrust
in his girdle, dragged beside him, by the throat, a little
tender lamb doomed for the sacrifice.

A dancing woman with jewels in her ears, and half



naked to the waist, sounding the brazen cymbals above
her head, drew a score of youths after her in Barabbas'

On one of the flat roof tops, reclining on purple and
fine linen, looking down on the street below from the
thick foliage of her citron boughs and her red Syrian
roses, was an Egyptian wanton ; and leaning beside her,
tossing golden apples in her bosom, was a young cen-
turion of the Roman guard, languid and Inughing, with
his fair chest bare to the heat, and his armour flung in a
pile beside him.

And thus, in like manner, every figure bore its parable ;
and above all was the hard, hot, cruel, cloudless sky of
blue, without one faintest mist to break its horrible
serenity, whilst high in the azure ether and against the
sun, an eagle and a vulture fought, locked close, and
tearing at each other's breasts.

Six nights this conception occupied him. His days
were not his own, he spent them in a rough mechanical
labour which his strength executed while his mind was
far away from it ; but the nights were all his, and at the
end of the sixth night the thing arose, perfect as far as
his hand could perfect it ; begotten by a chance and
ignorant word as have been many of the greatest works
the world has seen ; oaks sprung from the acorn that a
careless child has let fall.

When he had finished it his arm dropped to his side,
he stood motionless ; the red glow of the dawn lighting
the depths of his sleepless eyes.

r T was a level green silent country which was round
her, with little loveliness and little colour ; but as


she went she laughed incessantly in the delirious glad-
ness of her liberty.

She tossed her head back to watch the flight of a
single swallow ; she caught a handful of green leaves
and buried her face in them. She listened in a very
agony of memory to the rippling moisture of a little
brook. She followed with her eyes the sweeping vapours
of the rain-clouds, and when a west wind rose and blew
a cluster of loose apple blossoms between her eyes she
could no longer bear the passionate pain of all the long-
lost sweetness, but flinging herself downward, sobbed
with the ecstasy of an exile's memories.

The hell in which she had dwelt had denied them to
her for so long.

"Ah God!" she thought, "I know now one cannot
be utterly wretched whilst one has still the air and the
light and the winds of the sky."

And she arose, calmer, and went on her way ; won-
dering, even in that hour, why men and women trod the
daily measures of their lives with their eyes downward
and their ears choked with the dust ; hearkening so little
to the sound of the breeze in the grasses, looking so little
to the passage of the clouds against the sun.

yHE ground ascended as it stretched seaward, but on
it there were only wide dull fields of colza or of
grass lying, sickly and burning, under the fire of the
late afternoon sun.

The slope was too gradual to break their monotony.
Above them was the cloudless weary blue ; below them
was the faint parched green ; other colour there was none ;


one little dusky panting bird flew by pursued by a kite ;
that was the only change.

She asked him no questions ; she walked mutely and
patiently by his side ; she hated the dull heat, the colour-
less waste, the hard scorch of the air, the dreary change-
lessness of the scene. But she did not say so. He had
chosen to come to them.

A league onward the fields were merged into a heath,
uncultivated and covered with short prickly furze ; on the
brown earth between the stunted bushes a few goats were
cropping the burnt-up grasses. Here the slope grew
sharper, and the earth seemed to rise up between the sky
and them, steep and barren as a house-roof.

Once he asked her

" Are you tired ? "

She shook her head.

Her feet ached, and her heart throbbed ; her limbs
were heavy like lead in the heat and the toil. But she
did not tell him so. She would have dropped dead from
exhaustion rather than have confessed to him any weak-

He took the denial as it was given, and pressed onward
up the ascent.

The sun was slanting towards the west ; the skies
seemed like brass ; the air was sharp, yet scorching ; the
dull brown earth still rose up before them like a wall ;
they climbed it slowly and painfully, their hands and their
teeth filled with its dust, which drifted in a cloud before
them. He bade her close her eyes, and she obeyed him.
He stretched his arm out and drew her after him up the
ascent, which was slippery from drought and prickly from
the stunted growth of furze.

On the summit he stood still and released her.

" Now look."

She opened her eyes with the startled, half-questioning


stare of one led out from utter darkness into a full and
sudden light.

Then, with a great cry, she sank down on the rock,
trembling, weeping, laughing, stretching out her arms to
the new glory that met her sight, dumb with its grandeur,
delirious with its delight.

For what she saw was the sea.

Before her dazzled sight all its beauty stretched, the
blueness of the waters meeting the blueness of the skies ;
radiant with all the marvels of its countless hues ; softly
stirred by a low wind that sighed across it ; bathed in a
glow of gold that streamed on it from the westward ;
rolling from north to south in slow, sonorous measure,
filling the silent air with the ceaseless melody of its
wondrous voice.

The lustre of the sunset beamed upon it ; the cool
fresh smell of its waters shot like new life through all the
scorch and stupor of the day ; its white foam curled and
broke on the brown curving rocks and wooded inlets of
the shores ; innumerable birds, that gleamed like silver,
floated or flew above its surface ; all was still, still as
death, save only for the endless movement of those white
swift wings and the murmur of the waves, in which all
meaner and harsher sounds of earth seemed lost and
hushed to slumber and to silence.

The sea alone reigned, as it reigned in the young years
of the earth when men were not ; as, may be, it will be
its turn to reign again in the years to come, when men
and all their works shall have passed away and be no
more seen nor any more remembered.

Arslan watched her in silence.

He was glad that it should awe and move her thus.
The sea was the only thing for which he cared, or which
had any power over him. In the northern winters of his
youth he had known the ocean, in one wild night's work,
undo all that men had done to check and rule it, and


burst through all the barriers that they had raised against
it, and throw down the stones of the altar and quench
the fires of the hearth, and sweep through the fold and
the byre, and flood the cradle of the child and the grave
of the grandsire.

He had seen its storms wash away at one blow the
corn harvests of years, and gather in the sheep from the
hills, and take the life of the shepherd with the life of
the flock. He had seen it claim lovers locked in each
other's arms, and toss the fair curls of the first-born as
it tossed the riband weeds of its deeps. And he had felt
small pity ; it had rather given him a certain sense of
rejoicing and triumph to see the water laugh to scorn
those who were so wise in their own conceit, and bind
beneath its chains those who held themselves masters over

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 5 of 39)