1839-1908 Ouida.

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

. (page 7 of 39)
Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 7 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

troubles to his nation that kept it very poor, and forbade
him to finish the building of new marble palaces, and
the making of fresh gardens of delight, on which his
heart was set. So he, being weary of a barren land and
of an empty treasury, with all his might prayed to the
gods that all he touched might turn to gold, even as he
had heard had happened to some magician long before
in other ages. And the gods gave him the thing he
craved ; and his treasury overflowed. No king had ever
been so rich, as this king now became in the short space
of a single summer-day.


" But it was bought with a price.

"When he stretched out his hand to gather the rose
that blossomed in his path, a golden flower scentless and
stiff was all he grasped. When he called to him the
carrier-dove that sped with a scroll of love words across
the mountains, the bird sank on his breast a carven piece
of metal. When he was athirst and shouted to his cup-
bearer for drink, the red wine ran a stream of molten
gold. When he would fain have eaten, the pulse and the
pomegranate grew alike to gold between his teeth. And
lo ! at eventide, when he sought the silent chambers of
his harem, saying, ' Here at least shall I find rest,' and
bent his steps to the couch whereon his best-beloved
slave was sleeping, a statue of gold was all he drew into
his eager arms, and cold shut lips of sculptured gold
were all that met his own.

"That night the great king slew himself, unable any
more to bear this agony ; since all around him was deso-
lation, even though all around him was wealth.

" Now the world is too like that king, and in its greed
of gold it will barter its life away.

" Look you, this thing is certain I say that the
world will perish, even as that king perished, slain as
he was slain, by the curse of its own fulfilled desire.

" The future of the world is written. For God has
granted their prayer to men. He has made them rich,
and their riches shall kill them.

" When all green places have been destroyed in the
builder's lust of gain : when all the lands are but moun-
tains of brick, and piles of wood and iron : when there
is no moisture anywhere ; and no rain ever falls : when
the sky is a vault of smoke ; and all the rivers reek with
poison : when forest and stream, and moor and meadow,
and all the old green wayside beauty are things vanished
and forgotten : when every gentle timid thing of brake
and bush, of air and water, has been killed because it


robbed them of a berry or a fruit : when the earth is
one vast city, whose young children behold neither the
green of the field nor the blue of the sky, and hear no
song but the hiss of the steam, and know no music but
the roar of the furnace : when the. old sweet silence of
the country-side, and the old sweet sounds of waking
birds, and the old sweet fall of summer showers, and the
grace of a hedgerow bough, and the glow of the purple
heather, and the note of the cuckoo and cushat, and the
freedom of waste and of woodland, are all things dead,
and remembered of no man : then the world, like the
Eastern king, will perish miserably of famine and of
drought, with gold in its stiffened hands, and gold in its
withered lips, and gold everywhere : gold that the people
can neither eat nor drink, gold that cares nothing for
them, but mocks them horribly : gold for which their
fathers sold peace and health, and holiness and liberty :
gold, that is one vast grave."

"""THE earth is crowded full with clay gods and false
prophets, and fresh legions for ever arriving to carry
on the old strife for supremacy ; and if a man pass un-
known all the time that his voice is audible, and his
hand visible, through the sound and smoke of the battle,
he will dream in vain of any remembrance when the gates
of the grave shall have closed on him and shut him for
ever from sight.

When the world was in its youth, it had leisure to
treasure its recollections ; even to pause and look back,
and to see what flower of a fair thought, what fruit of a
noble art it might have overlooked or left down-trodden.

But now it is so old, and is so tired ; it is purblind
and heavy of foot ; it does not notice what it destroys ;
it desires rest, and can find none ; nothing can matter


greatly to it ; its dead are so many that it cannot count
them ; and being thus worn and dulled with age, and
suffocated under the weight of its innumerable memories,
it is very slow to be moved, and swift terribly swift
to forget.

Why should it not be ?

It has known the best, it has known the worst, that
ever can befall it.

And the prayer that to the heart of a man seems so
freshly born from his own desire, what is it on the weary
ear of the world, save the same old old cry which it has
heard through all the ages, empty as the sound of the
wind, and for ever for ever unanswered ?

""THERE is no more terrible woe upon earth than the
woe of the stricken brain, which remembers the
days of its strength, the living light of its reason, the
sunrise of its proud intelligence, and knows that these
have passed away like a tale that is told ; like a year
that is spent ; like an arrow that is shot to the stars, and
flies aloft, and falls in a swamp ; like a fruit that is too
well loved of the sun, and so, over-soon ripe, is dropped
from the tree and forgot on the grasses, dead to all joys
of the dawn and the noon and the summer, but still alive
to the sting of the wasp, to the fret of the aphis, to the
burn of the drought, to the theft of the parasite.

She only dimly understood, and yet she was smitten
with awe and reverence at that endless grief which had
no taint of cowardice upon it, but was pure as the patriot's
despair, impersonal as the prophet's agony.

For the first time the intellect in her consciously
awoke. For the first time she heard a human mind find
voice even in its stupor and its wretchedness to cry
aloud, in reproach to its unknown Creator :


" I am yours / Shall I perish with the body ? Why
have you ever bade me desire the light and seek it, if for
ever you must thrust me into the darkness of negation ?
Shall I be Nothing ? like the muscle that rots, like the
bones that crumble, like the flesh that turns to ashes,
and blows in a film on the winds ? Shall I die so ? I ?
the mind of a man, the breath of a god ? "

L_J E could not bear to die without leaving behind his

life some work the world would cherish.
Call it folly, call it madness, it is both : the ivory
Zeus that was to give its sculptor immortality, lives but
in tradition ; the bronze Athene, that was to guard the
Piraeus in eternal liberty, has long been levelled with the
dust ; yet with every age the artist still gives life for
fame, still cries, " Let my body perish, but make my soul
immortal ! "

H^'HE spider had drawn his dusty trail across them ;
the rat had squatted at their feet ; the darkness of
night had enshrouded and defaced them ; yet with the
morning they arose, stainless, noble, undefiled.

Amongst them there was one colossal form, on which
the sun poured with its full radiance.

This was the form of a captive grinding at a mill-
stone ; the majestic, symmetrical, supple form of a man
who was also a god.

In his naked limbs there was a supreme power ; in
his glance there was a divine command ; his head was
lifted as though no yoke could ever lie on that proud
neck his foot seemed to spurn the earth as though no
mortal tie had ever bound him to the sod that human
steps bestrode : yet at the corn-mill he laboured, grinding


wheat like the patient blinded oxen that toiled beside

For it was the great Apollo in Pherae.

The hand which awoke the music of the spheres had
been blood-stained with murder ; the beauty which had
the light and lustre of the sun had been darkened with
passion and with crime ; the will which no other on earth
or in heaven could withstand had been bent under the
chastisement of Zeus.

He whose glance had made the black and barren
slopes of Delos to laugh with fruitfulness and gladness
he whose prophetic sight beheld all things past, present,
and to come, the fate of all unborn races, the doom of
all unspent ages he, the Far-Striking King, laboured
here beneath the curse of crime, greatest of all the gods,
and yet a slave.

In all the hills and vales of Greece his lo paean
sounded still.

Upon his holy mountains there still arose the smoke
of fires of sacrifice.

With dance and song the Delian maidens still hailed
the divinity of Leto's son.

The waves of the pure Ionian air still rang for ever
with the name of Delphinios.

At Pytho and at Clarus, in Lycia and in Phokis, his
oracles still breathed forth upon their fiat terror or hope
into the lives of men ; and still in all the virgin forests
of the world the wild beasts honoured him wheresoever
they wandered, and the lion and the boar came at his
bidding from the deserts to bend their free necks and
their wills of fire meekly to bear his yoke in Thessaly.

Yet he laboured here at the corn-mill of Admetus ;
and watching him at his bondage there stood the slender,
slight, wing-footed Hermes, with a slow, mocking smile
upon his knavish lips, and a jeering scorn in his keen
eyes, even as though he cried :


" O brother, who would be greater than I ! For what
hast thou bartered to me the golden rod of thy wealth
and thy dominion over the flocks and the herds 1 For
seven chords strung on a shell for a melody not even
thine own ! For a lyre outshone by my syrinx hast thou
sold all thine empire to me. Will human ears give heed
to thy song now thy sceptre has passed to my hands ?
Immortal music only is left thee, and the vision foreseeing
the future. O god ! O hero ! O fool ! what shall these
profit thee now ? "

Thus to the artist by whom they had been begotten
the dim white shapes of the deities spoke. Thus he
saw them, thus he heard, whilst the pale and watery
sunlight lit up the form of the toiler in Pheras.

For even as it was with the divinity of Delos, so is
it likewise with the genius of a man, which, being born
of a god, yet is bound as a slave to the grindstone.
Since even as Hermes mocked, the Lord of the Unerring
Bow, so is genius mocked of the world, when it has
bartered the herds, and the grain, and the rod that metes
wealth, for the seven chords that no ear, dully mortal,
can hear.

And as he looked upon this symbol of his life, the
captivity and the calamity, the strength and the slavery
of his existence overcame him ; and for the first hour
since he had been born of a woman Arslan buried his
face in his hands and wept.

He could bend great thoughts to take the shapes that
he chose, as the chained god in Pheras bound the strong
kings of the desert and forest to carry his yoke ; yet,
like the god, he likewise stood fettered to the mill to
grind for bread.


/^\NE evening, a little later, he met her in the fields
^^^ on the same spot where Marcellin first had seen
her as a child amongst the scarlet blaze of the poppies.

The lands were all yellow with saffron and emerald
with the young corn ; she balanced on her head a great
brass jar ; the red girdle glowed about her waist as she
moved : the wind stirred the folds of her garments ; her
feet were buried in the shining grass ; clouds tawny and
purple were behind her ; she looked like some Moorish
phantom seen in a dream under a sky of Spain.

He paused and gazed at her with eyes half content,
half cold.

She was of a beauty so uncommon, so strange, and
all that was his for his art : a great artist, whether in
words, in melody, or in colour, is always cruel, or at the
least seems so, for all things that live under the sun are
to him created only to minister to his one inexorable

Art is so vast, and human life is so little. It is to
him only supremely just that the insect of an hour should
be sacrificed to the infinite and eternal truth which must
endure until the heavens themselves shall wither as a
scroll that is held in a flame. It might have seemed to
Arslan base to turn her ignorance, and submission to his
will, for the gratification of his amorous passions ; but to
make these serve the art to which he had himself aban-
doned every earthly good was in his sight justified, as
the death agonies of the youth whom they decked with
roses and slew in sacrifice to the sun, were in the sight
of the Mexican nation.

The youth whom the Mexicans slew, on the high liiH.
of the city, with his face to the west, was always the
choicest and the noblest of all the opening flower of their
manhood : for it was his fate to be called to enter into
the realms of eternal light, and to dwell face to face with
the unbearable brightness without whose ravs the universe


would have perished froze n in perpetual night. So the
artist, who is true to his s .rt, regards every human sacri-
fice that he renders up to it how can he feel pity for a
thing which perishes to f< ^ed a flame that he deems the
life of the world ?

The steel that he dra\ /s out from the severed heart of
his victim he is ready to plunge into his own vitals : no
other religion can vaunt as much of its priests.

"What are you thin! ;ing of to-night?" he asked her
where she came throuf jh the fields by the course of a
little flower-sown brooli :, fringed with tall bulrushes and
waving willow-stems.

She lifted her eye) ids with a dreamy and wistful

" I was thinking 1 '. wonder what the reed felt that
you told me of the o: ne reed that a god chose from all
its millions by the wat erside and cut down to make into
a flute."

" Ah ? you see the re are no reeds that rriake music
mow-a-days ; the reed; ; are only good to be woven into
Icreels for the fruits ar id the fish of the market."
" That is not the fc mlt of the reeds ? "
" Not that I know, ; it is the fault of men, most likely,
who find the chink o f coin in barter sweeter music than
the song of the syrin x. But what do you think the reed
felt then ? pain to be so sharply severed from its fel-
.lows ? "

NO or the gocl would not have chosen it."
" What then ? "

A troubled sigh parted her lips ; these old fables were
fairest truths to her, and gave a grace to every humblest
thing that the sion shone on, or the waters begat from
their foam, or the -winds blew with their breath into the
little life of a day.

" I was trying to think. But I cannot be sure. These
reeds have forgotten. They have lost their soul. They


want nothing but to feed amoi 'g the sand and the mud,
and grow in millions together, ; id shelter the toads and
the newts, there is not a not - of music in them all-
except when the wind rises anc I makes them sigh, and
then they remember that long, 1 ong-ago the breath of a
great god was in them."

Arslan looked at her where si e stood ; her eyes rest-
ing on the reeds, and the brook a t her feet ; the crimson
heat of the evening all about her, on the brazen amphora,
on the red girdle on her loins, 01 i the thoughtful parted
lips, on the proud bent brows abo ve whicli a golden but-
terfly floated as above the brows < ~>f Psyche.
He smiled ; the smile that was so cold to her.
" Look : away over the fields, there comes a peasant
with a sickle ; he comes to mow d own the reeds to make
a bed for his cattle. If he hean I you, he would think
you mad."

" They have thought me many things worse. What
matter ? "

" Nothing at all ; that I kno w. But you seem to
envy that reed so long ago thai was chosen ? "
" Who would not ? "

" Are you so sure ? The life of the reed was always
pleasant ; dancing there in the li ght, playing with the
shadows, blowing in the winds ; wit h the cool waters all
about it all day long, and the yell ow daffodils and the
blue bell-flowers for its brethren."
" Nay j how do you know ? "

Her voice was low, and thrilled with a curious eager

<: How do you know ?" she murmured. " Rather, it
was born in the sands, amongst the stones, of the chance
winds, of the stray germs, no one asking, no one heed-
ing, brought by a sunbeam, spat out by a toad no one
caring where it dropped. Rather, it grew there by
the river, and such millions of reeds grew with it, that



neither waters nor winds could t.
mon and worthless, but the very
out despised it, and thrust the ;
through it in scorn. And then-
great god walked by the edge of tl
on a gift to give man, on a joy th
the earth for ever ; and he passet
snow, by the thyme that fed the be
in the arum flower, by the orange fl
rush, by all the great water-blossc
kissed, and the swallows loved, and
little reed pierced with the snakes' toi
amidst millions. Then he took it \i\
root, and killed it ; killed it as a re
into it a song audible and beautiful
men. Was that death to the reed ? c
thousand summers of life by the watt
worth that one thrill of song when a
through it ? "

Her face lightened with a radiance to
sion of her words was pale and poor ; tl
her voice grew sonorous and changing as
music itself ; her eyes beamed through ui
planets through the rain.

:are for a thing so com-
snakes twisting in and
\rrows of their tongues
I think I see ! the
\e river, and he mused
at should be a joy on
I by the lily white as
es, by the gold heart
ame of the tall sand-
mis which the sun
he came to the one
igues, and all alone
>, and cut it to the
ed, but breathed
to all the ears of
r life ? Would a
irside have been
god first spoke

which the pas-

\e vibrations of

the sounds of

ished tears as

/^\F all the forms with which he had peopk
^^^ ness, these had the most profound in
her in their fair, passionless, majestic beauty
it seemed to her that the man who had forgo
had repeated his own likeness. For they were
yet unlike ; of the same form and feature, yet
even in their strong resemblance, like elder and
brethren who hold a close companionship. For
was still but a boy with his blue-veined eyelids

d its loneli-

'fluence on

, in which

tten them

all alike,







and his mouth rosy ai
ing child, and above 1
purple night. Oneiro
eyes smiled as thougl
come to him ; in his
held a black wand
head there hovered
alone was a man
colourless face the
ness, and an unsp
less, far-reaching',
they had seen a'
depths of hell ; :
all things, had 1(
sible in all the i
gave, and whicl
and cursed.
a great darkne

So the gods
seemed to hei
immortals wh

Thev are

outcast, of
spect not p
and flee fro
to writhe i
morning c
the purpl
lie, and \
gods of
the exil
the pr<
the sc

id parted like that of a slumber-
lis golden head a star rose in the
s standing next was a youth whose
i they beheld visions that were wel-
hand, amongst the white roses, he
of sorcery, and around his bended
a dim silvery nimbus. Thanatos
fully grown ; and on his calm and
re were blended an unutterable sad-
aakable peace ; his eyes were fathom-
heavy laden with thought, as though
; once the heights of heaven and the
md he, having thus seen, and knowing
,-arned that there was but one good pos-
miverse, that one gift which his touch
i men in their blindness shuddered from
t nd above him and around him there was

stood, and so they spoke, even to her; they
; as brethren, masters, friends these three
,o looked down on her in their mute majesty.
the gods of the poor, of the wretched, of the
;he proscribed, they are the gods who re-
;rsons nor palaces, who stay with the exile
m the king, who leave the tyrant of a world
n torment, and call a smile beautiful as the
.'ii the face of a beggar child, who turn from
i beds where wealth and lust and brutal power
ill with purest visions the darkest hours of the
nights, for genius and youth, they are the
consolation and of compensation, the gods of
e, of the orphan, of the outcast, of the poet, of
jphet, of all whose bodies ache with the infinite
of famine, and whose hearts ache with the infinite
of the world, of all who hunger with the body or


TT became mid-April. It was market-day for all the
country lying round that wondrous cathedral-spire,
which shot into the air far-reaching and ethereal, like
some fountain whose column of water had been arrested
aloft and changed to ice.

The old quiet town was busy, with a rich sunshine
shed upon it, in which the first yellow butterflies of the
year had begun to dance.

It was high noon, and the highest tide of the market.

Flower-girls, fruit-girls, egg-sellers, poultry-hucksters,
crowds of women, old and young, had jolted in on their
docile asses, throned on their sheepskin saddles ; and
now, chattering and chaffering, drove fast their trade. On
the steps of the cathedral boys with birds'-nests, knife-
grinders making their little wheels fly, cobblers hammer-
ing, with boards across their knees, travelling pedlars
with knapsacks full of toys and mirrors, and holy images,
and strings of beads, sat side by side in amicable com-

Here and there a priest passed, with his black robe
and broad hat, like a dusky mushroom amongst a bed
of many-hued gillyflowers. Here and there a soldier,
all colour and glitter, showed like a gaudy red tulip in
bloom amidst tufts of thyme.

The old wrinkled leathern awnings of the market-stalls
glowed like copper in the brightness of noon. The red
tiles of the houses edging the great square were gilded
with yellow houseleeks. The little children ran hither
and thither with big bunches of primroses or sheaves of
blue wood-hyacinths, singing. The red and blue serges
of the young girls' bodices were like the gay hues of the
anemones in their baskets. The brown faces of the old
dames under the white roofing of their headgear were
like the russet faces of the home-kept apples which they
had garnered through all the winter.

Everywhere in the shade of the flapping leather, and


the darkness of the wooden porches, there were the ten-
der blossoms of the field and forest, of the hedge and
garden. The azure of the hyacinths, the pale saffron of
the primroses, the cool hues of the meadow daffodils, the
ruby eyes of the cultured jonquils, gleamed amongst wet
rushes, grey herbs, and freshly budded leafage. Plovers'
eggs nestled in moss-lined baskets sheaves of velvet-
coated wallflowers poured fragrance on the air ; great
plumes of lilac nodded on the wind, and amber feathers
of laburnum waved above the homelier masses of mint
and marjoram, and sage and chervil.


'W/'HATEVER fate rose for them with the dawn, this
night at least was theirs : there is no love like
that which lives victorious even beneath the shadow of
death : there is no joy like that which finds its paradise
even amid the cruelty of pain, the fierce long struggle of

Never is the voluptuous glory of the sun so deep, so
rich, as when its last excess of light burns above the
purple edge of the tempest-cloud that soars upward to
cover and devour it.

u A ND we reign still ! "

She turned, as she spoke, towards the western
waters, where the sea-line of the JEgean lay, while in her
eyes came the look of a royal pride and of a deathless

" Greece cannot die. No matter what the land be now,
Greece our Greece must live for ever. Her language
lives ; the children of Europe learn it, even if they halt
it in imperfect numbers. The greater the scholar, the
humbler he still bends to learn the words of wisdom from
her school. The poet comes to her for all his fairest
myths, his noblest mysteries, his greatest masters. The
sculptor looks at the broken fragments of her statueg,



and throws aside his calliope in despair before those
matchless wrecks. From her soldiers learn how to die,
and nations how to conquer and to keep their liberties.
No deed of heroism is done but, to crown it, it is named
parallel to hers. They write of love, and who forgets the
Lesbian ? They dream of freedom, and to reach it they
remember Salamis. They talk of progress, and while
they talk they sigh for all that they have lost in Acade-
mus. They seek truth, and while they seek, wearily long,
as little children, to hear the golden speech of Socrates,
that slave, and fisherman, and sailor, and stonemason,

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 7 of 39)