1839-1908 Ouida.

Ouida, illustrated (Volume 4) online

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jest; you would save them, I know, if you could? It is so terrible to sit in
light and gaiety and comfort here while the ships are perishing; it seems like
guilt to be careless and rejoicing while others suffer, and death is close at hand.
There is something so fearful in life taken ! "

His hand dropped from her shoulder the hand which had "taken life"-
and, stricken by those words, as Cain was stricken by the voice of his con-
science calling on him to answer for his brother's keeping, he went out away
from the light, the murmur, the music out into the solitude of the dark and
stormy night.

No rain was falling, and the night was still, save when the winds, sweeping
through the forests, shrieked and moaned upon the air, and the noise of the
waves arose with a hollow roar, like desert beasts seeking their prey. The
ringed lightning, whirling down the sky, lit up the black masses of woodland
and the gray, spectral ruins of the cloisters where the graves of the dead Do-
minicans lay; and at intervals, above the tumult of the wind and sea, the signal
of distress broke faintly, and then died away. He stood on the terrace, look-
ing seaward, his head uncovered, his eyes meeting the electric blaze, braving
the fury of the storm as he had braved the curse of God and Man. Its wild
work rioted unnoticed, unfelt, around him; one of those dark hours was upon
him of which the world never knew, when the pride of an arrogant and egotistic
philosophy was rent asunder, and the throes of an undying remorse possessed
the soul which knew itself but the more deeply damned because the loftiness
of intellect by which it was companioned left it no plea of the dullard's brute
ignorance, or the murderer's coarse apathy, in its crime. He had wrought his
guilt wittingly, deliberately, and, though trodden down from memory by an iron
heel, and forgotten through long stretches of time in the pursuit of power, in
these hours, rare, solitary, horrible as those hours in which the men of earlier
ages, passion-riven, deemed themselves fiend-possessed, it uprose from the coiled
and slumbering past, and twisted round him as the serpents round the Laocoon.

Rarely, but the more terrible for their rarity, these hours came upon him.
He lived again through the commission of his crime; he heard the sullen
splashing of the pestilential waters; he saw on his right hand the luminous glory
of the sun; he watched the last-drawn breath shiver through the dying limbs,
while the white and quivering lips gasped their last words of pardon : " Oh God,
I forgive I forgive ! he did not know Pardon even in the throes of

VOL. IV. 12


death ! And the love that he had borne him, the love of youth's rejoicing
brotherhood, rose before him in all its glad communion, and the very earth
beneath, the very air about him, seemed to call upon God for vengeance for
that guiltless life hurled into a brutal grave.

Cold, arrogant, inflexible to the living, before the memory of his sin this
man bowed, prostrate, stricken, accursed in his own sight. For this sin was
irrevocable; and in its despair, its fruitless yearning, its hopeless impotence,
remorse looked mockery, expiation blasphemy.

What is done, is done for all eternity.

And he stood looking seaward, while the thunder echoed from hill to hill,
and the roar of the deep rose hoarse and sullen to its call. The great lost soul
of this man, which knew a supreme remorse, but was never smitten by a craven's
fear, found the echo of its own agony in the throes of earth and heaven, and
from his lips broke a bitter cry, lost in the beating of the storm :

" Oh God ! release me from my guilt ! "

In the silence, as the tempest lulled and the winds sank to rise again in
deadlier wrath, there echoed from the ocean raging below, the piteous signal,
and the prayer for human aid, of men in their last extremity, perishing nigh at
hand. He heard it, standing there, looking down into the darkness with his
face toward the sea, and as from the night around him there arose the faint
and weary moan of mortal misery, a voice whispered in his soul, " Let the hand
which took life save it ! So may its sin be redeemed ! "

And as men obey an imperative command, he bowed his head and went
through the tumult of the storm down towards the sea.

In the dark-arched portal of the door leading from the western wing, with
the blaze of the lightning playing about her unfeared, gazing at him, while the
wind drowned and wafted from her ear the cry to God of her father's destroyer,
stood Lucille. Unseen, and inspired by that instinct which lends courage to
the weak and strength to the frail, she had stolen from the drawing-rooms and
followed him through passage and corridor to the silent and deserted western
wing of he Abbey. The bright and delicate figure was strangely framed in the
gray stone of the pointed archway; the eyes looked wistfully out into the weird
darkness of the night; the hair gleamed golden in the flame which played
about it; fragile, imaginative, impressible, fearful in much, the storm had no
terror for her, its grandeur had been the music which had filled het heart with
its own solemnity in earliest childhood, and to which she had loved to listen as
to the sublime rhythm of a Miltonic poem. And into danger or death she would
have followed Strathmore without pause or fear, even as she followed him now.
When he bowed his head and went down towards the sea through the winds
and the gloom, she left the archway of the door, and silently and softly pur-
sued his steps over the mossy ground strewn with rent boughs and fallen fir-


cones, the steep and winding path which led to the beach. The gusts loosened
her hair and tossed it floating on the wind, the thunder of the skies and seas
echoed from hill to hill, the lightnings made their mad war about her feet and
flashed in her blinded eyes. Still she went on she whom the storm-blast
could destroy, as it destroyed the fairy-bells of the forest lily went on without
fear, for she followed him.



A WILD night !

A night to drown death-shrieks like the cry of a curlew, and play with men's
lives as with wisps of straw. A night with the black seas yawning in fathom-
less graves, and the hissing of the waters filling every moment that the thunder
lulled. No rain fell; the air was hot and arid, the dense clouds looked to
stoop and touch the waves where they rose, a mighty wall of water, mountain-
high; a darkness impenetrable broode'd over land and sea, when the lightning
ceased for some brief seconds, and when it blazed afresh the heavens were filled
with its flame that lit up the white stretch of beach, the gray rocks that glit-
tered, steel-like, in its light, the vast Druidic forests of the Abbey stretching
westward, and the boiling, seething, roaring abyss, where the sea devoured its
dead in the horror of night, to smile calm and sunny in the morning dawn
when its mad work would be done, and its prey rot below, with the sand in
their eyes and the salt weeds in their hair, and the nameless things of the deep
creeping over their limbs over the childish brow that had been flushed warm
with sleep a few hours before, over the long, floating tresses that had been
played with by a mother's hand, over the lips which had been sought in the
bridal softness of a good-night, caress. For the sea is fellow-reaper with death,
and, like his comrade, spares not for youth, or love, or pity, for childhood's cry,
or mother's prayer, or iron strength of manhood.

It was a wild night; the wind rose in sudden blasts swift and fierce as a
simoom, sweeping down from the wooded heights of the ancient monastery over
the darkness of the sea, and driving against each other the great masses of the
clouds like armies hurled together. The deafening roar of waters met the
thunder of the skies as they rolled back peal on peal; and in the lightning glare
the solitary ship was seen, black and spectral, with sails rent away and masts
broken like willow boughs; flung from side to side, as a lamed bird is flung in
cruel sport, now lifted on the crest of giant waves, now sunk from sight in the
chasm of the closing waters, reeling; rocking, driven at the mercy of the winds,
alone in the black, trackless waste of the Atlantic. The minute-gun was


silenced now, or drowned in the tumult of the storm; but ever and anon from
the tempest-tossed vessel there rose the shrill, piercing wail of perishing souls,
the cry in which Strathmore had heard a voice as the voice of God, bidding
him who had destroyed life save it.

The beach stretching beneath the wooded cliffs of White Ladies was almost
deserted. There was no fishing village near for several miles along the coast,
and there were no fisher-folk, no coast-guard men, no boats, save the pleasure-
boats kept for the Abbey, pretty toys, shaped like Greek feluccas or Turkish
caiques, that would have been beaten to pieces in the storm like painted butter-
flies. A few men had gathered on the shore gamekeepers, lodgekeepers,
woodsmen, laborers, cotters looking helplessly on, full willing to succor
those in peril, but incapable of lending any aid; they had a great coil of
stout rope with them, but they gazed vacantly and sadly at it; they had no
means to use it for any chance of rescue unless the storm lulled, and some dared
swim out to sea. They fell back, and uncovered their heads as Strathmore's
step was heard on the surf-splashed sand, and the lightning shone upon his
face; he did not seem to see them, but stood looking outward to the ocean
where the ship was reeling through the trough of the waves. In the uproar
of the night, in the fury of the storm, in the violence 'of the winds that swept
the sea apart in yawning gulfs, and piled it high in beetling barriers of foam,
and flung it over the quivering vessel as though it were some living thing
they strove to stifle and entomb, help from the hand of man seemed hope-
less; nothing but a life-boat could have lived through such a sea. He stood
looking in silence outward, his head uncovered to the winds, his eyes meeting
the electric glare unflinching; behind him the granite pine-crowned slope of
the cliff, at his side the group of men, silent too, and watching him with
something of wonder, for they had never seen their lord take heed of the
waste or cost of 'life upon the coast, with much of anxiety and hope as the
light flashed flickeringly about them, for they knew how bold a swimmer he
was, and had heard through what storms he had brought his yacht in distant
tropic seas in years gone by. And unseen by him, for she knew he would
forbid her braving the ghastly night if he saw that she had followed him stood
Lucille, her arms wound close about a tall pine-stem to lend her resistance
against the gusts that whirled through the forests, and bent the old wych-elms
like silver larches, her long hair unloosed and filled with sear brown leaves
blown in it by the wind, her eyes gazing on him through the blinding flashes,
her face white to the lips, but in awe with which fear for herself had no shadow
of share, and filled with the pity, the terror, the sublimity, the grandeur of the
storm. That wrath of the ocean had been the Dies Ira to which she had lis-
tened from the years of infancy, and the solemnity of its awful hours had lent
to her nature its depth and its melancholy. The ocean, in her spiritual poetic


creed, was as the mighty servant of God, moved by his voice and ruled by his
will; eternal power spoke to her in the rushing of the storm, as eternal mercy
smiled on her in the sunlight of the seas. She had no fear; and she stood with
her arms wound about the knotted pine, and her hair floating backward from
her brow, as in the pictures of old masters the young angel stands, serene and
filled with an infinite compassion and love, while the earth is tempest-rocked be-
neath his feet. And on the beach Strathmore looked outward over the boiling
waters, and in the black abyss, far out to sea, the lost ship labored.

The ringed lightning whirled down the sky, the heavens were riven by the
sheet of flame, the vessel stood out distinct against the glare, so nigh, that from
the shore the crowd swarming on the deck and clinging to the ropes were seen
in the spectral light. Then one huge wave dashed over her and laid her down
on her leeward side; there was a crash, a crushing, splitting noise, that echoed
to the land; darkness fell over the face of the waters; the moaning wail of per-
ishing lives pierced above the tempest roar the ship had struck.

When the lightning shone out again, the wreck lay with its hull out of water,
stranded on a sunken rock, a black and shapeless mass; more than a third of
its freight of human life had been swept off by the sea that had engulfed it, and
the remnant left clung to the shrouds and frame-work of the foundered vessel,
their faces turned towards land, their shrill shrieks ringing through the night.
Strathmore's eyes glanced over the stretch of distance which lay betwixt the
shipwrecked and the beach, and measured it unerringly as unerringly he gauged
the danger, almost the impossibility, of any swimmer living through those seas.
Nevertheless he turned to the men beside him:
" Fetch me a coil of rope."

" I've got rope here, my lord," said his head-keeper, as they hauled the
great coil nearer.

" We can't do nothing, your lordship," said another man, one of his tenant
farmers: "God knows I'd risk a bit to save those poor drowning wretches;
but even a boat, if we had one, my lord, wouldn't live through that ere storm."
" Most likely not," answered Strathmore, indifferently, stooping to try the
strength of the cable with his hands, while the men grouped about him with
white, scared faces and eager, wistful eyes, that strained now towards the wreck
where it lay in the heaving waters, now towards his movements, with the dull,
mechanical anxiety and marvel with which those whom peril and emergency
stupefy look on at him whom they only nerve and arm. He was flinging off his
evening dress, lashing a lantern to his shoulders, and knotting tight about his
waist one end of the rope. He knew that hazard ran a thousand to one that
the boldest and surest swimmer could ever breast the mad fury of the seeth-
ing waves and return alive; death waited for him in a hundred forms. He had
no pity, no yearning for those dying in the darkness of the night; humanity


was alien to his nature, and his philosophic creed held in its calm logic that
death, as the universal law, reaps its sure average every year, and that the
mode of its advent is of little import. Life was precious to him, for his power,
his intellect, his ripened triumphs, his gathered honors, his influence over men
and nations; it was to him as wide waste to risk his existence for that of a
ship's crew common sailors, wailing women, useless children as to risk a
man's for that of a dog. It was not for them that he came to wrestle with the
storm, to rescue them or perish ; it was for the memory of the dead, it was for
the rigid law of expiation which he had set to himself with the iron sternness
of Mosaic law, it was for the remorse which in its dark hours forced him to
any travail, to any sacrifice, to any ordeal which could wash the blood-stain
from his hand. Thus he had done great things unknown to men, and witnessed
but by God things noble and holy, wrought on one inexorable principle of
atonement, and wrought in silence and unseen of the world, even as in ancient
days the great and guilt-stained soul strove to cleanse and justify itself by piti-
less penance in cloister and in battle, among the plague-stricken and the infidel,
in the death-ranks of the Crusade and the reeking pestilence of the lazar-
wards. He knotted the cord close about his waist, and glanced once more
across the boiling seas; he was a skilled and daring swimmer, and held all
danger in the sure measurement, yet the cool disdain, of a sagacious courage.

" For Heaven's sake, my lord ! you won't try those seas ! " said the men,
involuntarily crowding nearer, their deference to his rank, and their first-awed
wonder at his cool, rapid movement, breaking down before the imminence of
the peril that he was about to encounter, single-handed and unaided.

" Strathmore, for the love of God, what are you about !" shouted one of his
guests, who, with Nello Caryll and another, sprang down from the cliffs above,
having left the drawing-rooms soon after him to visit the shore, not naming
where they came lest they should alarm the women; the thickness of the pine-
boughs and the wood parted their path from where Lucille stood, and they saw
her no more than he did on the beach as they plunged headlong through the
blaze of the storm, down the slippery, precipitate path, strewn with broken
branches and with loosened boulders.

" Nothing wonderful," he answered simply: "only what any of my yacht's
crew would do in a second."

" But no man can live in those seas ! "

" Oh, I don't know. I have swum the Bosphorus in rougher weather still."

Young Caryll laid his hand on his arm:

" Lord Cecil ! let me go ! I swim like a water-dog, and your life is too
great to be flung away on a risk."

The youth's face was very pale as the lightning flashed on it, and his eyes
shone with excitement; he was of a generous, impressible nature, and it touched


him strangely to see one whom he had known but as the haughty and ambitious
Minister, the cold and caustic man of the world, ready to face death for (as he
deemed) the mere sake of those who suffered, ready to peril life to succor
strangers perishing.

" My life is required of me; yours is not."

The brief, calm words bore no meaning to the boy's ear, save that they
refused to yield up place to him, but his hand tightened still on Strathmore's,
and his voice, hurried and low, was drowned to any other ear than his in the
din of the storm.

" Let me go first at least, sir ! She would never forgive me if I stood by
to see you perish."

Strathmore started, and Nello could not tell whether the quiver which passed
over his face was one of pain or was but the shiver of the flickering flash. He
put him aside with a brief command:

" I forbid you to peril your life. And while you talk the wreck is sinking."

Then, shaking himself free from the other men, he plunged without pause
into the dark, seething breakers the wild, broken cry of a young voice rang
out upon the night, as the black waves closed over him, but in the crash of
the tempest, and the tension of high-strung excitement, none heard, or none
regarded it.

In the glare from the rent skies, those clinging to the shattered wreck saw
him fling himself down into the boiling chasm of the seas to save them, and
gave him one ringing cheer that pierced above the thunder and drowned
the dying, stifled shriek of those whom the waves washed at that instant
from their hold upon the taffrail into the darkness yawning round. He knew
that death was nigh, and all but imminent; he knew that the keenest skill, the
boldest daring, could do but little against that mad mass of loosened waters;
he knew that in a second's space the chance was, as a million to one, that he
would be flung back upon the jagged granite of the rocks, torn, mangled,
bleeding, lifeless, or be beaten down under the weight of the waves, never to
rise again. Yet he gave himself to the fury of the seas without hesitancy, and
let their surging billows yawn for him and close above his head, while over the
wide waste of ocean the great darkness again fell, and those who gazed, awe-
stricken and with tight-drawn breath, knew not whether the issue would be life
or death. The lightning lit the Atlantic with its blaze afresh, and in the ghastly
hue he rose, flung to and fro upon the heaving foam yet parting the black
water with calm and resolute strength, grappling hard with death and danger,
and refusing to be conquered : then, from the broken, shapeless wreck a great
cheer rose again, and rang over the seas, sublime as a Te Deum, grand as the
lo Tfiumphe of the victor's paean; it was the " Morituri te Salutant ! " of the
dying to him who died for them.


Thrice he was hurled backwards to the shore; thrice, bruised, buffeted,
borne down by the weight of the waters heavily as by an iron mace, he swam
out again, striking the waves with steady, unceasing strokes. The salt foam
was in his teeth, the lightning in his eyes, the seas threw him hither and thither,
and flung him down into their depths. They cast him, now outward to the
waste of the ocean, now backward towards the jagged beach rocks, where,
once dashed upon the granite, he would lie a shapeless corpse; now high upon
the crested billows in the lurid glistening light, while the great bulk of water
heaved and rocked beneath him; now down into the chasm of the yawning seas,
while the breakers swept over his head, and in the darkness he heard the sullen
roar of the Atlantic sounding in his ear and beating in his brain, and felt the
surging of the waves seeking whom they should devour.

Neither from wreck nor shore could his path be traced; now and again when
the lightning lit the skies they saw his arms stretched out upon the black ex-
panse, where he wrestled with the winds that blew in his teeth and drove the
waves upon him, and swayed him to and fro as the current sways a straw; or
through the shroud of darkness that covered the deep, on which the wail of the
drowning lives alone was heard, the light lashed to him shone out for one fleet
instant, to be lost again in the impenetrable gloom, and when it sunk from sight
they could not tell whether he yet lived amidst the fury of the seas; or whether
he were dashed upon the sunken reefs to rise no more, until a rigid, sightless,
broken corpse should float upward in the light of the morrow's sun.

A great awe fell on those who watched and waited for the issue of the con-
test of one human life with the tumult of ocean and storm; their lips were
white, their breath was held, their brows were wet with dew; they feared, they
trembled, they suffered for him as he never did for himself; for in the jaws of
the grave, Strathmore was calm, and with danger, the dauntless and defiant
courage in his blood rose resolute. He beat his path through the salt, blinding
water, recovering again and again every yard from which the wind drove or the
sea dashed him back.

None wrestling through the tumult of the night, to reach what they loved
best from the fast-sinking wreck, would have fought a more enduring conflict
with the death which menaced him on every side, than he who, with no human
love, no human pity for one of those for whom he gave himself, cast himself
into the devouring seas, for sake of a sterner and a nobler duty, for sake of the
atonement which should save life by the same arm which had once taken life,
and wash out the stain of blood-guiltiness by the ransom of lost souls.

The night was holy, the storm was sanctified to him; with each time that
he arose from the salt, fathomless abyss, he was nearer to the expiation for
which he labored; with every stroke by which he forced back the mad, murder-
ous waters, he was victor over the remorse which in its dark hours made him


accursed in his own eyes; with all the bruised, exhausted pain of that wild work,
as the ocean flung him downward, and the winds hurled him against the rocks,
he felt but as, in ancient days, those guilt-laden and athirst for freedom from
the memory and the burden of their guilt, felt the points of the iron in their
flesh, or the torturing baptism of fire, as an atonement welcome and hallowed,
a purification before God.

For in these hours the dark, grand, wild nature latent in him broke out
and ruled; and shattered down the creeds of the Statesman, the Courtier, and
the World.

At last he neared the wreck, beating his way through the uproar and the
gloom, while above him the great waves were reared like the towering crest of
an Alpine slope. For a moment the lightning died out, and in the thick
darkness he lay on the waters, waiting till in its glare he should be able to reach
the side of the stranded and shattered hull. The blaze flashed out afresh,
illumining sea and sky, the measureless waste of the Atlantic, and the dark
woodlands of the shore; and at the instant when the dying saw their deliverer,
and in the stead of death hope came to them the curdled, reared waters rolled,
and swept up with a hoarse, hollow roar, like a lion's when he is an-hun-

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaOuida, illustrated (Volume 4) → online text (page 41 of 80)