1839-1908 Ouida.

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

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all beasts of the field and birds of the air.

Other men dreaded the sea and cursed it ; but he in
his way loved it almost with passion, and could he have
chosen the manner of his death would have desired that
it should be by the sea and through the sea ; a death
cold and serene and dreamily voluptuous : a death on
which no woman should look and in which no man should
have share.

He watched her now for some time without speaking.
When the first paroxysm of her emotion had exhausted
itself, she stood motionless, her figure like a statue of
bronze against the sun, her head sunk upon her breast,
her arms outstretched as though beseeching that wondrous
brightness which she saw to take her to itself and make
her one with it. Her whole attitude expressed an unut-
terable worship. She was like one who for the first time
hears of God.

"What is it you feel?" he asked her suddenly. He
knew without asking ; but he had made it his custom to
dissect all her joys and sufferings with little heed whether
he thus added to either.


At the sound of his voice she started, and a shiver
shook her as she answered him slowly, without withdraw-
ing her gaze from the waters.

" It has been there always always so near me?"

" Before the land, the sea was."

" And I never knew ! "

Her head drooped on her breast ; great tears rolled
silently down her cheeks ; her arms fell to her sides ; she
shivered again and sighed. She knew all that she had
lost this is the greatest grief that life holds.

"You never knew," he made answer. "There was
only a sand-hill between you and all this glory ; but the
sand-hill was enough. Many people never climb theirs
all their lives long."

The words and their meaning escaped her.

She had for once no remembrance of him, nor any
other sense save of this surpassing wonder that had thus
burst on her this miracle that had been near her for so
long, yet of which she had never in all her visions

She was quite silent ; sunk there on her knees, motion-
less, and gazing straight, with eyes unblenching, at the

There was no sound near them, nor was there anything
in sight except where above against the deepest azure of
the sky two curlews were circling around each other, and
in the distance a single ship was gliding, with sails silvered
by the sun. All signs of humap life lay far behind ;
severed from them by those steep scorched slopes swept
only by the plovers and the bees. And all the while she
looked slow tears gathered in her eyes and fell, and the
loud hard beating of her heart was audible in the hushed
stillness of the upper air.

He waited awhile : then he spoke to her.

" Since it pains you, come away."

A great sob shuddered through her.


"Give me that pain," she muttered, "sooner than any
joy. Pain ? pain ? it is life, heaven liberty ! "

For suddenly those words which she had heard spoken
around her, and which had been to her like the mutter-
ings of the deaf and the dumb, became real to her with
thousand meanings.

The seagulls were lost in the heights of the air ; the
ship sailed on into the light till the last gleam of its can-
vas vanished ; the sun sank westward lower and lower
till it glowed in a globe of flame upon the edge of the
water : she never moved ; standing there on the summit
of the cliff, with her head drooped upon her breast, her
form thrown out dark and motionless against the gold of
the western sky, on her face still that look of one who
worships with intense honour and passionate faith an
unknown God.

The sun sank entirely, leaving only a trail of flame
across the heavens ; the waters grew grey and purple in
the shadows ; one boat, black against the crimson reflec-
tions of the west, swept on swiftly with the in-rushing
tide ; the wind rose and blew long curls of seaweed on
the rocks ; the shores of the bay were dimmed in a heavy
mist, through which the lights of the little hamlets dimly
glowed, and the distant voices of fishermen calling to each
other as they drew in their deep-sea nets came faint arid

VW'HAT she wanted was to live. Live as the great
moor bird did that she had seen float one day over
these pale, pure, blue skies, with its mighty wings out-
stretched in the calm grey weather ; which came none
knew whence, and which went none knew whither; which
poised silent and stirless against the clouds ; then called
with a sweet wild love-note to its mate, and waited for
him as he sailed in from the misty shadows where the sea


lay ; and with him rose yet higher and higher in the air ;
and passed westward, cleaving the fields of light, and so
vanished ; a queen of the wind, a daughter of the sun ;
a creature of freedom, of victory, of tireless movement,
and of boundless space, a thing of heaven and of liberty.

1 N the springtime of the year three gods watched by
the river.

The golden flowers of the willows blew in the low winds ;
the waters came and went ; the moon rose full and cold
over a silvery stream ; the reeds sighed in the silence.

Two winters had drifted by and one hot drowsy sum-
mer since their creator had forsaken them, and all the
white still shapes upon the walls already had been slain
by the cold breath of Time. The green weeds waved in
the empty casements ; the chance-sown seeds of thistles
and of bell-flowers were taking leaf between the square
stones of the paven places ; on the deserted threshold
lichens and brambles climbed together ; the filmy ooze
of a rank vegetation stole over the loveliness of Perse-
phone and devoured one by one the divine offspring of
Zeus ; about the feet of the bound sun king in Pherce and
over the calm serene mcckery of Hermes' smile the grey
nets of the spiders' webs had been woven to and fro,
across and across, with the lacing of a million threads, as
Fate weaves round the limbs and covers the eyes of
mortals as they stumble blindly from their birthplace to
their grave. All things, the damp and the dust, the frost
and the scorch, the newts and the rats, the fret of the
flooded waters, and the stealing sure inroad of the mosses
that everywhere grew from the dews and the fogs, had
taken and eaten, in hunger or sport, or had touched, and
thieved from, then left, gangrened and ruined.

The three gods alone remained ; who being the sons of


eternal night, are unharmed, unaltered, by any passage of
the years of earth. The only gods who never bend be-
neath the yoke of years ; but unblenchingly behold the
nations wither as uncounted leaves, and the lands and
the seas change their places, and the cities and the em-
pires pass away as a tale that is told ; and the deities that
are worshipped in the temples alter in name and attributes
and cultus, at the wanton will of the age which begot

In the still, cold, moonlit air their shadows stood to-
gether. Hand in hand ; looking outward through the
white night-mists. Other gods perished with the faith of
each age as it changed ; other gods lived by the breath
of men's lips, the tears of prayer, the smoke of sacrifice.
But they, their empire was the universe.

In every young soul that leaps into the light of life
rejoicing blindly, Oneiros has dominion ; and he alone.
In every creature that breathes, from the conqueror rest-
ing on a field of blood to the nest bird cradled in its bed
of leaves, Hypnos holds a sovereignty which nothing
mortal can long resist and live. And Thanatos, to him
belongs every created thing, past, present, and to come ;
beneath his feet all generations lie ; and in the hollow of
his hand he holds the worlds ; though the earth be tenant-
less, and the heavens sunless, and the planets shrivel in
their courses, and the universe be shrouded in an endless
night, yet through the eternal desolation Thanatos still
will reign, and through the eternal darkness, through the
immeasurable solitudes, he alone will wander, and he still
behold his work.

Deathless as themselves their shadows stood ; and the
worm and the lizard and the newt left them alone and
dared not wind about their calm clear brows, and dared
not steal to touch the roses at their lips, knowing that ere
the birth of the worlds these were, and when the worlds
shall have perished these still will reign on : the slow,


sure, soundless, changeless ministers of an eternal rest,
of an eternal oblivion.

A late light strayed in from the grey skies, pale as the
primrose flowers that grew amongst the reeds upon the
shore ; and found its way to them, trembling ; and shone
in the far-seeing depths of their unfathomable eyes.

The eyes which spake and said :

" Sleep, dreams, and death : we are the only gods that
answer prayer."

'M'IGHT had come; a dark night of earliest spring.
The wild day had sobbed itself to sleep after a rest-
less life with fitful breath of storm and many sighs of
shuddering breezes.

The sun had sunk, leaving long tracks of blood-red
light across one-half the heavens.

There was a sharp crisp coldness as of lingering frost
in the gloom and the dulness. Heavy clouds, as yet un-
broken, hung over the cathedral and the clustering roofs
around it in dark and starless splendour.

Over the great still plains which stretched eastward and
southward, black with the furrows of the scarce-budded
corn, the wind blew hard ; blowing the river and the
many streamlets spreading from it into foam ; driving
the wintry leaves which still strewed the earth thickly,
hither and thither in legions ; breaking boughs that had
weathered the winter hurricanes, and scattering the tender
blossoms of the snowdrops and the earliest crocuses in
all the little moss-grown garden ways.

The smell of wet grass, of the wood-born violets, of trees
whose new life was waking in their veins, of damp earths
turned freshly upwards by the plough, were all blown to-
gether by the riotous breezes.

Now and then a light gleamed through the gloom where
a little peasant boy lighted home with a torch some old


priest on his mule, or a boat went down the waters with
a lamp hung at its prow. For it grew dark early, and
people used to the river read a threat of a flood on its face.

A dim glow from the west, which was still tinged with
the fire of the sunset, fell through a great square window
set in a stone building, and striking across the sicklier
rays of an oil lamp reached the opposing wall within.

It was a wall of grey stone, dead and lustreless like
the wall of a prison-house, over whose surface a spider as
colourless as itself dragged slowly its crooked hairy limbs
loaded with the moisture of the place, which was an old
tower, of which the country folk told strange tales, where
it stood among the rushes on the left bank of the stream.

A man watched the spider as it went.

It crept on its heavy way across the faint crimson re-
flection from the glow of the sunken sun.

It was fat, well-nourished, lazy, content ; its home of
dusky silver hung on high, where its pleasure lay in weav-
ing, clinging, hoarding, breeding. It lived in the dark ;
it had neither pity nor regret ; it troubled itself neither
for the death it dealt to nourish itself, nor for the light
without, into which it never wandered ; it spun and throve
and multiplied.

It was an emblem of the man who is wise in his gene-
ration ; of the man whom Cato the elder deemed divine ;
of the Majority and the Mediocrity who rule over the
earth and enjoy its fruits.

This man knew that it was wise ; that those who were
like to it were wise also : wise with the holy wisdom which
is honoured of other men.

He had been unwise always ; and therefore he stood
watching the sun die, with hunger in his soul, with famine
in his body.

For many months he had been half famished, as were
the wolves in his own northern mountains in the winter
solstice. For seven days he had only been able to crush


a crust of hard black bread between his teeth. For twenty
hours he had not done even so much as this. The tren-
cher on his tressel was empty ; and he had not where-
withal to re-fill it.

He might have found some to fill it for him no doubt.
He lived amidst the poor, and the poor to the poor are
good, though they are bad and bitter to the rich. But he
did not open either his lips or his hand. He consumed
his heart in silence ; and his vitals preyed in anguish on
themselves without his yielding to their torments.

He was a madman; and Cato, who measured the godli-
ness of man by what they gained, would have held him
accursed ; the madness that starves and is silent for an
idea is an insanity, scouted by the world and the gods.
For it is an insanity unfruitful ; except to the future.
And for the future who cares, save these madmen them-

He watched the spider as it went.

It could not speak to him as its fellow once spoke in
the old Scottish story. To hear as that captive heard,
the hearer must have hope, and a kingdom, if only in

This man had no hope ; he had a kingdom indeed, but
it was not of earth ; and, in an hour of sheer cruel bodily
pain, earth alone has dominion and power and worth.

The spider crawled across the grey wall ; across the
glow from the vanished sun ; across a coil of a dead pas-
sion-vine, that strayed loose through the floor ; across the
classic shapes of a great cartoon drawn in chalks upon
the dull rugged surface of stone.

Nothing arrested it ; nothing retarded it, as nothing
hastened it. It moved slowly on ; fat, lustreless, indolent,
hueless ; reached at length its den, and there squatted
aloft, loving the darkness ; its young swarming around,
its prey held in its forceps, its nets cast about.

Through the open casement there came on the rising


wind of the storm, in the light of the last lingering sun-
beam, a beautiful night-moth, begotten by some cruel
hot-house heat in the bosom of some frail exiled tropical

It swam in on trembling pinions, and alighted on the
golden head of a gathered crocus that lay dying on the
stones a moth that should have been born to no world
save that of the summer world of a Midsummer Night's

A shape of Ariel and Oberon ; slender, silver, purple,
roseate, lustrous-eyed, and gossamer-winged.

A creature of woodland waters, and blossoming forests ;
of the yellow chalices of kingcups and the white breasts
of river lilies, of moonbeams that strayed through a sum-
mer world of shadows, and dew-drops that glistened in
the deep folded hearts of roses. A creature to brush the
dreaming eyes of a poet, to nestle on the bosom of a
young girl sleeping : to float earthwards on a falling star,
to slumber on a lotus leaf.

A creature that amidst the still soft hush of woods and
waters still tells, to those who listen, of the world when
the world was young.

The moth flew on, and poised on the fading crocus
leaves, which spread out their pale gold on the level of
the grey floor.

It was weary, and its delicate wings drooped ; it was
storm-tossed, wind-beaten, drenched with mist and frozen
with the cold ; it belonged to the moon, to the dew, to the
lilies, to the forget-me-nots, and to the night ; and it
found that the hard grip of winter had seized it whilst yet
it had thought that the stars and the summer were with
it. It lived before its time, and it was like the human
soul, which being born in the darkness of the world dares
to dream of light, and, wandering in vain search of a sun
that will never rise, falls and perishes in wretchedness.

It was beautiful exceedingly, with the brilliant tropical


beauty of a life that is short-lived. It rested a moment
on the stem of the pale flower, then with its radiant eyes
fastened on the point of light which the lamp thrust up-
ward, it flew on high ; and, spreading out its transparent
wings and floating to the flame, kissed it, quivered once,
and died.

There fell among the dust and cinder of the lamp a
little heap of shrunken, fire-scorched, blackened ashes.

The wind whirled them upward from their rest, and
drove them forth into the night to mingle with the storm-
scourged grasses, the pale dead violets, the withered snow-
flowers, with all things frost-touched and forgotten.

The spider sat aloft, sucking the juices from the fettered
flies, teaching its spawn to prey and feed ; content in
squalor and in plenitude ; in sensual sloth, and in the
increase of its body and its hoard.

He watched them both : the success of the spider, the
death of the moth ; trite as a fable ; ever repeated as the
tides of the sea ; the two symbols of humnnity ; of the
life which fattens on greed and gain, and the life which
perishes of divine desire.

HP HE RE were no rare birds, no birds of moor and
* mountain, in that cultivated and populous district ;
but to her all the little home-bred things of pasture and
orchard were full of poetry and of character.

The robins, with that pretty air of boldness with which
they veil their real shyness and timidity ; the strong and
saucy sparrows, powerful by the strength of all mediocrities
and majorities ; all the dainty families of finches in their
gay apparellings ; the plain brown bird that filled the
night with music ; the gorgeous oriole ruffling in gold, the
gilded princeling of them all ; the little blue warblers, the
violets of the air ; the kingfishers who had hovered so


long over the forget-me-nots upon the rivers that they had
caught the colours of the flowers on their wings ; the
bright blackcaps green as the leaves, with their yellow
waistcoats and velvet hoods, the innocent freebooters of
the woodland liberties : all these were her friends and
lovers, various as any human crowds of court or city.

She loved them ; they and the fourfooted beasts were
the sole things that did not flee from her ; and the woeful
and mad slaughter of them by the peasants was to her a
grief passionate in its despair. She did not reason on
what she felt ; but to her a bird slain was a trust betrayed,
an innocence defiled, a creature of heaven struck to earth.

Suddenly on the silence of the garden there was a little
shrill sound of pain ; the birds flew high in air, screaming
and startled ; the leaves of a bough of ivy shook as with
a struggle.

She rose and looked ; a line of twine was trembling
against the foliage ; in its noosed end the throat of the
mavis had been caught ; it hung trembling and clutching
at the air convulsively with its little drawn-up feet. It
had flown into the trap as it had ended its joyous song
and soared up to join its brethren.

There were a score of such traps set in the miller's

She unloosed the cord from about its tiny neck, set it
free, and laid it down upon the ivy. The succour came
too late ; the little gentle body was already without breath ;
the feet had ceased to beat the air ; the small soft head
had drooped feebly on one side ; the lifeless eyes had
started from their sockets ; the throat was without song
for evermore.

"The earth would be good but for men," she thought,
as she stood with the little dead bird in her hand.

Its mate, which was poised on a rose bough, flew
straight to it, and curled round and round about the small
slain body, and piteously bewailed its fate, and mourned,


refusing to be comforted, agitating the air with trembling
wings, and giving out vain cries of grief.

Vain ; for the little joyous life was gone ; the life that
asked only of God and Man a home in the green leaves ;
a drop of dew from the cup of a rose ; a bough to swing
on in the sunlight ; a summer day to celebrate in song.

All the winter through, it had borne cold and hunger
and pain without lament ; it had saved the soil from de-
stroying larvae, and purified the trees from all foul germs ;
it had built its little home unaided, and had fed its nest-
lings without alms ; it had given its sweet song lavishly
to the winds, to the blossoms, to the empty air, to the
deaf ears of men ; and now it lay dead in its innocence ;
trapped and slain because a human greed begrudged it a
berry worth the thousandth part of a copper coin.

Out from the porch of the mill-house Claudis Flamma
came, with a knife in his hand and a basket, to cut lilies
for one of the choristers of the cathedral, since the morrow
would be the religious feast of the Visitation of Mary.

He saw the dead thrush in her hand, and chuckled to
himself as he went by.

" The tenth bird trapped since sunrise," he said, think-
ing how shrewd and how sure in their make were these
traps of twine that he set in the grass and the leaves.

She said nothing ; but the darkness of disgust swept
over her face, as he came in sight in the distance.

She knelt down and scraped a hole in the earth ; and
laid moss in it, and put the mavis softly on its green and
fragrant bier, and covered it with handfuls of fallen rose
leaves, and with a sprig or two of thyme.

Around her head the widowed thrush flew ceaselessly,
uttering sad cries ; who now should wander with him
through the sunlight ? who now should rove with him
above the blossoming fields ? who now should sit with
him beneath the boughs hearing the sweet rain fall be-
tween the leaves ? who now should wake with him whilst



yet the world was dark, to feel the dawn break ere
the east were red, and sing a welcome to the unborn

AND, indeed, to those who are alive to the nameless,
f*> universal, eternal soul which breathes in all the
grasses of the fields, and beams in the eyes of all creatures
of earth and air, and throbs in the living light of palpitating
stars, and thrills through the young sap of forest trees, and
stirs in the strange loves of wind-borne plants, and hums
in every song of the bee, and burns in every quiver of the
flame, and peoples with sentient myriads every drop of
dew that gathers on a harebell, every bead of water that
ripples in a brook to these the mortal life of man can
seem but little, save at once the fiercest and the feeblest
thing that does exist ; at once the most cruel and the
most impotent ; tyrant of direst destruction and bonds-
man of lowest captivity.

Hence, pity entered very little into his thoughts at any
time; the perpetual torture of life did indeed perplex him,
as it perplexes every thinking creature, with wonder at
the universal bitterness that taints all creation, at the
universal death whereby all forms of life are nurtured, at
the universal anguish of all existence which daily and
nightly assails the unknown God in piteous protest at the
inexorable laws of inexplicable miseries and mysteries.
But because such suffering was thus universal, therefore
he almost ceased to feel pity for it ; of the two he pitied
the beasts far more than the human kind : the horse
staggering beneath the lash in all the feebleness of hunger,
lameness, and old age ; the ox bleeding from the goad on
the hard furrows, or stumbling through the hooting crowd,
blind, footsore, and shivering, to its last home in the
slaughter-house ; the dog, yielding up its noble life inch
by inch under the tortures of the knife, loyally licking


the hand of the vivisector while he drove his probe
through its quivering nerves ; the unutterable hell in
which all these gentle, kindly, and long-suffering creatures
dwelt for the pleasure or the vanity, the avarice or the
brutality of men, these he pitied perpetually, with a
tenderness for them that was the softest thing in all his

" ""THERE lived once in the East, a great king ; he
* dwelt far away, amongst the fragrant fields of
roses, and in the light of suns that never set.

" He was young, he was beloved, he was fair of face
and form ; and the people, as they hewed stone, or brought
water, said amongst themselves, 'Verily, this man is as a
god ; he goes where he lists, and he lies still or rises up
as he pleases; and all fruits of all lands are culled for
him ; and his nights are nights of gladness, and his days,
when they dawn, are all his to sleep through or spend as
he wills.' But the people were wrong. For this king was
weary of his life.

" His buckler was sown with gems, but his heart be-
neath it was sore. For he had been long bitterly harassed
by foes who descended on him as wolves from the hills
in their hunger, and he had been long plagued with
heavy wars and with bad rice harvests, and with many

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 6 of 39)