1839-1908 Ouida.

Ouida, illustrated (Volume 9) online

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possessions to be absent in the north two days.

There were but three nights more of her public career. He would fain
have shortened even these; but the interests of many were involved, and with
the true soul of the artist in her, she parted from her world of art with pain
and almost with unwillingness; and she clung to these few remaining hours in
which alone the genius in her would ever utter itself to the multitude, and feel
and use its powers.

He feared that it would be impossible for him to return before midnight
of the second day at earliest. He left her with singular reluctance, with longing
regret, even for so short an absence. Towards the close of the day she sat
alone in her little library; without there was all the glow of a summer evening
at seven o'clock, but within the violet hues of the room seemed like twilight.
She sat lost in thought; a smile and a flush now and then crossing her face at
some memory; her book had fallen to the floor; her head was bent; in her
bosom some little scarlet love-roses were fastened.

She did not hear the sound of steps without; she did not even hear the
soft slow unclosing of the door, and the sweep of a woman's robes over the
velvet of the floor. Lost in thought, the deep, sweet, visionary thought of a



428 OUIDA'S WORKS.

love that is half-earthly, half-divine, she did not even feel that she was no
more alone.

The woman paused and looked at her, herself unseen. Her great, brown,
slumberous eyes glittered like jewels; her ruby mouth curled with a cruel
scorn; her teeth set slightly, like an animal about to spring. I knew her
thus had I seen her, though then obscure of beauty as a diamond still dull in its
bed of quartz, look thirstily on the tawdry treasury of the pedler's pack; thus
had I seen her in all the haughty insolence of her shameful pomp when she
had sat in her amber-hung casement, and mocked the poor, lowly, stainless life
whose innocence and sublimity offended her.

She stood quite still, looking, looking, with the heavy lids dropped over her
eyes; she was attired for some festival of the coming night; jewels glanced at
every point upon her; a gold-hued, tropical bird was fastened against her
breast, in its beak a flower of diamonds; with that scorn upon her mouth, with
that gleam beneath her lids, with some gold-hued tissue, light as mist, about
her, she seemed to me to burn with an insufferable brilliancy through the dusk
as a tiger's eyeballs may flame through the darkness of an eastern night.

Suddenly Gladys felt, rather than heard or saw; felt that she was watched,
and was no more in solitude; she started, turned her head, and sprang to her
feet, erect.

For the moment she was speechless in surprise; for the moment this woman's
face was strange to her, telling no tale, bringing no history.

Avice Dare smiled where she stood. She had come unannounced, unaccom-
panied; admitted doubtless through some bribe of her gold, or some awe that
her rank carried with it.

" You know me ? " she said carelessly. " I know you. We are both on
the world's stage."

Gladys gazed at her, still silent with amaze; remembrance of the sole history
that she had heard tangled with this woman's name returning slowly through
the confusion of her shattered thoughts.

"I know you thus much," she answered, her clear pure tones striking
across the harsh voice of her questioner as the note of a silver bell may strike
across the dissonant clangor of brazen cymbals. " Thus much, that your
presence only is a dishonor. Why do you bring it hither ? "

Avice Dare laughed aloud, with caustic insolent ease, and for answer sank
on to a couch by the hearth, and leaned her elbow on her knee, her chin upon
her hand, in indolent action of familiarity.

" Dishonor ? are you a fool ? I am what all women would give their lives
and their souls to be, now. I came to look at you, stand more to the light,
so ! you are handsome enough ! "

Gladys stood erect upon her own hearth, the last glow of the sunset falling



PUCK. 429

upon her; her hand rested on the marble shelf, her eyes were dilated with a
deepening amazement half touched with loathing and with fear.

She deemed this woman mad.

" Whatever be your errand, say it and depart," she made answer.
" Though you now were an empress, not less should I hold your life infamy."

Avice Dare laughed once more; with one hand she played with the
diamond in the mouth of the bird, on the other side she rested her chin whilst
her slumberous, ruthless glances searched out every trait of face and of form,
of limb and of feature, in the living loveliness that faced her.

" My errand is to look at you," she said curtly. " Well, you are beautiful,
though not in my fashion. You are a genius, they say. What use is that ? I
had only good looks, and see where I am ! Genius ? Pshaw ! what do they
care for that ? If you were an ill-favored wench, though you had all the genius
of heaven and hell, what would it serve you ? You might die in a gutter."

The voice of Gladys, with its proud serene utterance, ran again across hers:

" Do you come here to tell me this ? It was not worth while. I know
nothing of you, save that you have been one who destroyed the lives and the
souls of men; I desire to know no more. I only bid you go."

Avice Dare laughed aloud; her eyes glittered with a more sinister and
savage meaning under the weight of their blue-veined languid lids.

" Destroy the lives and souls of men know no more of me than that !
Pshaw ! what is that more than to know me a woman ? You speak fine and
fair. I never did either. I am a dullard at their arts and their learning. But
I am no such fool but what I think, sometimes. I think what fools and what
beasts they are: maddened by the red of our lips and the white of our skins;
ready to sell themselves to any devil, if we will only be theirs when they craze
for us; flinging away all their gold, and their youth, and their good repute,
that we may spurn them, or kick them, or kill them as our choice goes. I do
think, sometimes. I think what fools and what beasts they are. There is
your lover he was mine once."

The face of Gladys grew suddenly white as death; she pressed one hand
to her heart unconsciously, crushing the roses.

"Will you go?" she said calmly still, whilst her teeth were tight shut.
" Or will you force me to summon my servants ? "

Avice Dare bent forward, the golden bird glowing brighter, the diamond in
his mouth shining with rosier light, the laugh in her eyes growing broader and
coarser.

" Call whom you like. It is no news to the town, if it be news to you. It
was only when I left him left him because he was well-nigh a beggar, and
had dared to taunt me for having no talent it was only then that he gave
his theatre to you."



430 QUID AS WORKS.

"His!"

She echoed the word unconsciously in the stupor of amaze with which this
woman's words had stifled her. Some vague shape of some hideous truth, that
loomed out from the gloom of hidden years, was all she had vision left to see.

" His, surely his, what of that ? " retorted the sullen, scoffing, victorious
voice, which in its moments of passion lost all the finer and purer accent of
tuition, and lapsed into the rude and homely words of its birth-tongue. "His
theatre ! You know that well enow. It have always been his toy, to set up
his fancy of the hour in, and make the gabies of the world run and stare to see
a thing of wonder in his mistress. He's had it now a many year; and he've
never had one as good in it as me, though he chose to dare and jibe me, and
to say as I could only do the dancing. You were a girl he found in the streets,
I've heard? selling flowers and starving? And you'd a pretty face, and he
took a liking to it; and he made a lady of you ? It's his way; and it pays,
too. Naught draws like a handsome face to the stage. You are an artist,
they say, and God knows what: I never did naught but dress and dance. But
the town was as mad about me as you. So was he. I pillaged him pretty
well; but they do say as how you have ruined him out-and-out. A playhouse
is a pretty toy enough; but it beggars men quick when we help too ! You
live very quiet, and proud, and innocent-like, they say. Well, it seems to pay
you high that way; but you chose to talk about ' infamy ' a second ago. Now,
I have been honest, at least: while you "

Her laugh filled up the pause; more brutally than by jest or jibe.

Gladys stood erect; her hand clinched on the marble; her face blanched
with a mute, breathless disgust; her lips dumb in her own defence. An
unutterable horror had seized her: in one instant all the truth, so long screened
from her with such tender hands, was laid bare to her sight as the flash of the
lightning lays bare the abyss.

For the moment she was speechless; her heart beat with a slow sickening
effort, that seemed to drain all strength from her limbs and all life from her
veins; her eyes lost sight; her ears lost sound; a deadly faintness held her in
its bonds.

A vice Dare watched her with a sleepy voluptuous cruel pleasure; even as
in the old time gone I had seen her watch the lingering torture of a high-
cou raged, luminous-eyed falcon, caught in a trap in a green beechen bough,
and struggling passionately for freedom, all through the hours of a burning
thirsty summer day, till death released it.

"Your eyes look strange: is this news to you ?" she said coldly. "Igno-
rance is odd enough, surely. If it is not his gold that you live on, whose is it ?
Does gold grow, like your roses? You were a beggar, without bread, without
home, without a hope in the world: yet when you were lifted up into riches



PUCK. 431

and ease you never asked whence the wealth came that did it ! Faugh ! what
liar durst tell any baby such a fable as that? "

The foul word roused her hearer like a dagger's thrust; the sickly faintness
passed away; the blood rushed to her face in a bright passionate flood; her
eyes flashed fire; her whole form grew instinct once more with strength and
gracious pride.

"Silence! Silence! " she cried with calm contemptuous command. " What
my life is, matters not to you. It cannot come for judgment to your vile
imaginings. Go, and let me forget, if I can, that lips so foul as yours have
ever dared to breathe to me the name I honor only second to my God's."

For one moment the low brutal nature of her antagonist was awed and
cowed before the grandeur of that noble simplicity, the purity of that perfect
faith; for one moment she, in whom womanhood was but a base and venal
infamy, saw by one fleeting vision how great by the divinity of love can
womanhood become.

With the next instant the evil in her scoffed to scorn that one relenting
impulse.

It has been written that there is not one man without some gleam of
tenderness and pity; it is not written that there is not one woman.

Her dusky sleepy eyes flashed with a sudden stupid wonder.

" Is it true ? " she said curtly. " True, as some say of late, that you be
his wife ? "

Gladys answered nothing; but her face spoke. Where she stood, with her
hands crossed upon her breast and her eyes gazing against the sunset light,
there was more eloquence than lies in words in that fearless dignity, in that
conscious gladness and glory of a life which knew itself one with his forever.

Avice Dare laughed aloud, gnawing with her ruby lip the diamond which
the bird bore.

" So-ho ! you have done worse by him than even I did ! " she cried, her
hard exultant voice ringing through the soft sweet silence of the chamber.
"I have done it by another, it's true. But my dupe is a witless lad, too great
a fool to know what honor is. But yours ! Nay, hear me out, I have little to
say; but I'll say that. I know him right well; he's a fool in his gifts, and
a devil in his pride. Like enow you've drawn him to give you even his name,
out of pity. But maybe you've never thought how you've killed his pride in
him forever and aye. Do you know that the women of his rank would no
more come nigh you than nigh me ? Do you know that his world will say he
has married his mistress, and that your sons will be taught, soon or late, to
blush for their mother? Do you know that, to live with you, he must give up
his order: and that, though you may carry its title, you will never pierce into
its ranks ? I tell you the truth: I've done the like myself. But I'm a 'vile



432 OUIDA'S WORKS.

woman,' you know; you, you're an angel of innocence ! Well, you may be|
you've a fair face, I see; and you hold yourself rarely and royally. But, look
you here. When, through you, he is the scorn of friends and the jest of fools;
when for you he gives up his old world, and his own race; when by you he has
children who can be taunted by schoolmates with your name; when for you he
lives beggared, restless, half obscure, shunning the eyes of the world because
of the stain the world thinks that it sees on his scutcheon, then he will find
little choice, I fancy, between my ' infamy ' and your ' innocence.' You are his
wife, no doubt; your eyes say so, though you stand dumb. Well, he will
never tell it to you, because he is a gentleman born; but as sure as he lives,
so sure will the day come when in his soul he will curse you for the selfishness
that you cloaked in purity, for the cruelty that you masked in love. I am a
bad woman yes but I was never so base to him as you ! I only took his
gold; I never stole his name ! "

Then, without another word, she passed across the chamber; the gleam of
her golden tissues flashing on the gloom.

On the threshold she paused, one moment; the brutal smile gleaming
on her full red lips: "We go to see you act to-night: you will scarce be at
your greatest, I fancy ! " And the door closed on her slow hard mockery
of joyless laughter.

Gladys stood erect on her own hearth. A mute, breathless, numbing
horror stole over her face, and blasted the light from her eyes, and drained
the life from her veins. She gave no cry, no sign; she did not move; her eyes
still looked out steadfast at the light, and yet ah God ! to see that horror in
her face was to behold death seize a living, happy, sinless creature in the first
fair radiance of its beauty, in the first sweet summer of its years !

********

Eight of the evening chimed softly through the silence. It was the season
when the world claimed her. She had flung herself on her knees beside her
couch; and still kneeled there with her head bowed upon her arms, though
more than an hour had drifted by since the words of her destroyer had echoed
through the stillness of that peaceful place. At the sound of the chimes she
started, and rose to her feet; she was white as marble; her breath came in slow,
agonized labor; her eyes had a bewildered, tearless terror in them.

So brief a while before a rapture so perfect had environed her; a passion
so shadowless had entranced her; and now, the whole force of a hideous truth
was round her like a web of fire.

She knew that in the world's sight she was a thing dishonored; and that
the reflex of such dishonor was the sole dower that she had brought her
husband.

" To have harmed him to have harmed him. Oh, my God ! " That was



PUCK. 433

the sole cry that was wrung from her. Before her sight, like an abyss on
which the lightning plays, there spread all the depths of infamy on which she,
unwitting, had stood in joyous ignorance so long, and all the undreamt-of
wealth of pity, tenderness, and countless gifts that she had owed to him.

All things were bared before her; she saw herself the creature of his alms,
the beggar enriched by his mercy, the debtor kept in blindness because vision
would have shown her all her debt. She knew now why all the women of his
race had held aloof from her; she knew now why the assurance of the world's
honor had hesitated on his lips, and his promise of it been, not confidence, but
defiance. Even in her ignorance even when she had deemed herself the
creatrix of her fame, and the gainer of her gold, she had said ever in her
soul, "What shall I render thee, O princely giver?" deeming that the world
could never hold fit payment to him. But now now she beheld the past in
all its nakedness; and now she knew likewise that her only recompense to
him was to take him, in marriage, the imputed shame wherewith the world had
ladened her !

With all the sweeping cruelty of bitterest truth, the words of her enemy
had scourged her, till they cut the living flesh of her bared heart.

Without a thought that was regret, without a dream that was fear, without
a vision of dishonor that could ever taint her, of repentance that could ever
assail her, she had lived her radiant life until this hour. And now now she
knew that though she should live to the extremest years of age, she could never
undo the evil wherewith she had paid him back his good.

Baser and more self-steeped natures would but have seen that, come what
would, her own place as his wife was beyond challenge and beyond change.
But to her the knowledge that the wrong wrought to him could never be
undone, though ever so passionately he should crave his freedom, though ever
so wearily he should lament his loss, was an agony greater than any woe or
martyrdom she could herself have borne.

" If only he were still free ! " she cried aloud in her torture. " If only I
could be his servant his mistress his dog so that the world should honor
him still ! "

For to her, in the deep humility of her passionate gratitude, it seemed that
there was naught in herself to recompense him for his surrender to her of his
honor and his troth: to her, in the high, pure, stainless creeds of her old grave
poetic race, it seemed that to have lived upon his gold, though all unwittingly,
and to have been libelled by his world, though all unrightfully, took from her
forever all fitness to the place and to the name of his wife.

She was but a child, still; she was a poet, she had the pride of lofty creeds,
she had the self-abandonment of a love that was absolute in its idolatry; she
saw nothing, felt nothing, heeded nothing, save that she was shameful in the



434 QUID A' S WORKS.

sight of the world, and that she had paid a measureless debt only by acceptance
of as measureless a sacrifice !

One thought only folded her in its poisonous net, as the fire folded Glance.
The thought that she had dishonored him dishonored him ! she, who would
have given up her young life to any torture or to any death, to spare to him
one moment's pang, to save to him one breath of scorn !

It may be that if in this hour his voice had fallen on her ear, his kiss had
touched her lips, this paroxysm might have passed, this horror might have
unloosed her. But he was absent: there were none near to counsel or to
soothe: she was alone with all this brutal truth that rose before her, all this
sense of irrevocable ruin brought on him by her lovr.

And in such an hour she could not reason: she could only suffer: suffer

those tortures of hell which on earth only come to the innocent.

********

The eighth hour sounded.

She started to her feet. She knew that the public waited her.

" Oh God, I cannot go ! " she murmured. " I cannot ! "

Her head fell on her breast; her white lips gasped for air; the crushed
roses fell to the ground dead.

But that moment passed. She had the courage of the soldier; the endurance
of the martyr. Such women have. It was the fulfilling of his appointed place;
it was the execution of his appointed duty.

On the side-table near there stood a flask of rich amber -tinted wine, that
he had left there in the early day. By sheer instinct she poured it forth, and
took deep draughts of it; it was rarely that she ever touched wine; its stimu-
lant revived the warmth in her veins, quickened the dull uncertain beating
of her heart, restored her for the hour to strength and consciousness.

"She shall not see me fail," she muttered in her teeth. "She shall see
what force his love and honor give."

Then she rang, and bade them tell her people she was ready, and went, with
a calm step and all her old grace of bearing, to the carriage that already waited
at the accustomed hour. I followed her: she was not sensible of my presence.

The horses flew like the wind; it was already late; I looked up at her face
in fear and trembling: it might have been cut in marble, it was so still, so fixed,
so colorless. Her eyes still held that look of breathless pain, and her heart
beat so loudly that I could hear the throb of its heavy and irregular pulse above
the sound of the horses' hoofs, and all the manifold and confused noises of the
busy streets.

The simple gold of the marriage ring was hidden undej a weight of other
jewelled circles on her slender hand; she drew the jewels from it, and looked
at it with a strange passion, half glory and half horror.



PUCK. 435

It was the sign of her honor amidst women, it was true; but none the less
did it seem to her the sign of his bondage, of his sacrifice, of his degradation
in the sight of the world.

"They must not know: they must never know," she murmured; and she
put back over it the gemmed rings that screened it from others' eyes.

What she would do in the future, she knew not; she only vaguely felt that
never, by the derision of the world for him, should the honor of the world be
purchased for herself.

The carriage flew through the lighted town, in which the glare of the gas
crossed the lingering light of the glad summer evening.

It paused before the familiar place where the world waited for her.

" If they see that I suffer, they will say evil of him," she muttered, half
aloud; and the meditative calm came back into her eyes; her colorless mouth
wore a proud resolve; her head was lifted with a haughty grace. As she
passed the people in the passage to go onward to her dressing chamber, I
heard one stranger say to another, " Is that fair-haired woman the actress ?
Heavens ! she might be an empress by her look ! "

It was later than the appointed hour; the house called for her, growing
impatient; there was not a moment to be lost. She robed herself hastily,
and swept on to the stage with slow, graceful, negligent dignity, whilst the
homage of the crowded theatre rang out again and again in their acclamations
of welcome.

She looked once at the house: there, true to her word, her enemy was
throned; seated, laughing amidst her courtiers, as Faustina sat beneath the
purple canopy of the Antonines to watch the gladiatorial show upon the blood-
steeped sands below.

The amber tissues glowed around her, till she seemed bathed in light, and
the golden bird in her bosom held his diamond in the light, as though in symbol
of the sole wage for which the wise amidst womanhood sell love.

Her eyes met those of Gladys: they were full of the same merciless exul-
tation, of the same sleepy, brutal, and voluptuous pleasure. As the noble
courser answers to the barbed cruelty of the spur, so did the high courage
of the creature that she tortured answer to that tigress's glance. The blood
flushed to her face; strength rang in her voice; eloquence and inspiration re-
turned to her. She played with yet more consummate art, with yet more daunt-
less genius, than the world had ever beheld in her. For she played to justify
his love; she played to save his honor; she played, not for the world, but him.

I felt a strange fear as I watched her: I knew not why.

It seemed to me that the force of her self-command was too great, the
fever of her strength too high, for the victory not to cost her some fatal price
ere it should utterly be won.



436 QUID AS WORKS.

And at those times, when she was no more in the public sight, but waited
in the solitude of her chamber, my terror grew: for that deathlike whiteness
of her face never changed, and I could see and hear the labored beating of her
heart, as though the youth and vital gladness of its pulse were crushed and
suffocated beneath the weight of deadly knowledge.

Yet still she moved with a grace so exquisite, with a power so matchless,
before the assembled multitude ! She held them entranced as even she had
never held them. When their cries rang to the roof, they were no empty or
careless homage, but the tumultuous fury of a people moved to passionate and
rapturous emotions. And where her enemy sat, with the golden bird nestled
in her bosom, and the brutal triumph in her eyes, the eyes glanced with furtive
doubt, and the wicked lips curled with an uneasy smile her prey escaped her;
her hate lost its sting.

The end drew near; the strain was well-nigh over.

As she went once more before the sight of the people I knew that the



Online Library1839-1908 OuidaOuida, illustrated (Volume 9) → online text (page 48 of 92)