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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter II
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter II Post by :insure Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :966

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter II

The large square fresh-water fishing-net had sunk under the surface, the canes which framed it were out of sight; only the great central pole, which sustained the whole, and was planted in the ground of the river-bank, remained visible as it bent and swayed but did not yield or break. Such nets as this had been washed by the clear green waters of the pools and torrents of the Edera ever since the days of Etruscan gods and Latin augurs; religions had changed, but the river, and the ways of the men of the river, had not altered.

Adone did not touch it, for it was well where it was; he seated himself on the bank ready to seize and hold it if its pole showed any sign of yielding and giving way and heeling over into the stream. He sat thus amongst the bulrushes for many an hour, on many a spring day and summer night. Although fish were not numerous he never tired of his vigil, lulled by the sound of the current as it splashed among the stones and rippled through the rushes; a deeper music coming from its higher reaches, where it fell over a ledge of rock and leapt like a live thing into the air. And, indeed, what thing could be more living than this fresh, pure, untroubled water, glad as a child, swift as a swallow, singing for sport, as a happy boy sings, as it ran down on its way from the hills?

To the young man sitting now on its bank amidst the bulrushes it was as living as himself, his playmate, friend, and master, all in one. First of all things which he could remember were the brightness and the coolness of it as it had laved his limbs in his childhood on mid-summer noons, his mother's hands holding him safely as he waded with rosy feet and uncertain steps along its pebbly bottom! How many mornings, when he had grown to boyhood and to manhood, had he escaped from the rays of the vertical sun into its acacia-shadowed pools; how many moonlit, balmy nights had he bathed in its still reaches, the liquid silver of its surface breaking up like molten metal as he dived! How many hours of peace had he passed, as he was spending this, waiting for the fish to float into his great net, whilst the air and the water were alike so still that he could hear the little voles stealing in and out amongst the reeds, and the water-thrush pushing the pebbles on its sands in search for insects, though beast and bird were both unseen by him! How many a time upon the dawn of a holy-day had he washed and swam in its waters whilst the bells of the old church in the village above had tolled in the softness of dusk!

He thought of none of these memories distinctly, for he was young and contented, and those who are satisfied with their lot live in their present; but they all drifted vaguely through his mind as he sat by the side of the river, as the memories of friends dear from infancy drift through our waking dreams.

He was in every way a son of the Edera, for he had been born almost in the water itself; his mother had been washing linen with other women at the ford when she had been taken with the pains of labour two months before her time. Her companions had had no time or thought to do more than to stretch her on the wet sand, with some hempen sheets, which had not yet been thrown in the water, between her and the ground; and the cries of her in her travail had echoed over the stream and had startled the kingfishers in the osiers, and the wild ducks in the marshes, and the tawny owls asleep in the belfry tower of the village. But her pains had been brief though sharp, and her son had first seen the light beside the water; a strong and healthy child, none the worse for his too early advent, and the rough river-women had dipped him in the shallows, where their linen and their wooden beaters were, and had wrapped him up in a soiled woollen shirt, and had laid him down with his face on his mother's young breast, opening his shut unconscious mouth with their rough fingers, and crying in his deaf ear, "Suck! and grow to be a man!"

Clelia Alba was now a woman of forty-one years old, and he, her only son, was twenty-four; they had named him Adone; the beautiful Greek Adonais having passed into the number of the saints of the Latin Church, by a transition so frequent in hagiology that its strangeness is not remembered save by a scholar here and there. When he had been born she had been a young creature of seventeen, with the wild grace of a forest doe; with that nobility of beauty, that purity of outline, and that harmony of structure, which still exist in those Italians in whom the pure Italiote blood is undefiled by Jew or Gentile. Now her abundant hair was white, and her features were bronzed and lined by open-air work, and her hands of beautiful shape were hard as horn through working in the fields. She looked an old woman, and was thought so by others, and thought herself so: for youth is soon over in these parts, and there is no half-way house between youth and age for the peasant.

Clelia Alba, moreover, had lost her youth earlier even than others: lost it for ever when her husband at five-and-twenty years of age had been killed by falling from an olive-tree of which the branch sustaining him had cracked and broken under his weight. His neck had been broken in the fall. She had been dancing and shouting with her two-year-old child on the grassland not far off, romping and playing ball with some dropped chestnuts; and when their play was over she had lifted her boy on to her shoulder and run with him to find his father. Under one of the great, gnarled, wide-spreading olives she had seen him, lying asleep as she thought.

"Oh, lazy one, awake! The sun is only two hours old!" she had cried merrily, and the child on her shoulder had cooed and shouted in imitation, "Wake--wake--wake!" and she, laughing, had cast a chestnut she had carried in her hand upon the motionless figure. Then, as the prostrate form did not stir, a sudden terror had seized her, and she had set the baby down upon the grass and run to the olive-tree. There she had seen that this was death, for when she had raised him his head had dropped, and seemed to hang like a poppy broken in a blast of wind, and his eyes had no sight, and his mouth had no breath.

From that dread hour Clelia Alba had never laughed again. Her hair grew white, and her youth went away from her for ever.

She lived for the sake of her son, but she and joy had parted company for ever.

His death had made her sole ruler of the Terra Vergine; she had both the knowledge and the strength necessary for culture of the land, and she taught her boy to value and respect the soil.

"As you treat the ground ill or well, so will your ground treat you," she said to him.

She always wore the costume of the province, which was similar to that of the Abruzzo villages, and suited her cast of features and her strong and haughty carriage. On feast-days she wore three strings of fine pearls round her throat, and bracelets of massive gold and of fine workmanship, so many in number that her arms were stiff with them; they had been her mother's and grandmother's and great-grandmother's, and had been in her dower. To sell or pawn them under stress of need, had such occurred, would never have seemed to any of her race to be possible. It would have seemed as sacrilegious as to take the chalice off the church altar, and melt its silver and jewels in the fire. When she should go to her grave these ornaments would pass to Adone as heirlooms; none of her family were living.

"Never talk of death, mother," he said, whenever she spoke of these things. "Death is always listening; and if he hear his name he taps the talker on the shoulder, just to show that he is there and must be reckoned with."

"Not so, my son!" replied Clelia Alba, with a sigh. "He has every soul of us written down in his books from the time we are born; we all have our hour to go and none of us can alter it."

"I do not believe that," said Adone. "We kill ourselves oftentimes; or we hasten our end, as drunkards do."

"Did your father hasten his end?" said his mother. "Did not some one break that olive branch? It was not the tree itself, though the Ruscino folks would have it cut down because they called it a felon."

"Was it not the devil?" said Adone.

He believed in the devil, of course, as he had been taught to do; and had he not as a child met the infernal effigy everywhere--in marble, in stone, in wood, in colour, in the church and outside it, on water-spout and lamp-iron, and even on the leaves of his primer? But it seemed to him that the devil had "_troppo braccia_" given him, was allowed too long a tether, too free a hand; if indeed he it were that made everything go wrong, and Adone did not see who else it could be. Here, in the vale of Edera, all the world believed in Satan as in holy water, or in daily bread.

Clelia Alba crossed herself hastily, for she was a pious woman.

"We are talking blasphemy, my son," she said gravely. "Of course there is the good God who orders the number of our days for each of us, and is over us all."

Adone was silent. To him it seemed doubtful. Did the good God kill the pretty little children as the butcher in a city killed his lambs? But he never contradicted or vexed his mother; he loved her with a great and tender affection. He was less ignorant than she was, and saw many things she could not see; he was, as it were, on a hilltop and she down in a valley, but he had a profound respect for her; he obeyed her implicitly, as if he were still a child, and he thought the world held no woman equal to her.

When he went back to his house that evening, with his great net on his shoulder and swinging in one hand some fresh-water fish, he looked at the stone bench, which was empty of all except some fallen rose-leaves, and then anxiously, questioningly, in the face of his mother.

So he answered the regard.

"The girl is gone to Gianna's custody," she said rather harshly. "Gianna will give her her supper, and will let her sleep in the loft. With the morning we will see what we can do for her, and how she can be sped upon her way."

Adone kissed her hands.

"You are always good," he said simply.

"I am weak," answered his mother, "I am weak, Adone; when you wish anything I consent to it against my judgment."

But she was not weak; or at least only weak in the way in which all generous natures are so.

On the morrow Nerina was not sped on her way. The old woman, Gianna, thought well of her.

"She is as clean as a stone in the water," she said; "she has foul-smelling rags, but her flesh is clean. She woke at dawn, and asked for something to do. She knows nought, but she is willing and teachable. We can make her of use. She has nowhere to go. She is a stray little puppy. Her people were miserable, but they seem to have been pious folks. She has a cross pricked on her shoulder. She says her mother did it when she was a babe to scare the devil off her. I do not know what to say; she is a poor, forlorn little wretch; if you like to keep her, I for my part will see to her. I am old: it is well to do a good work before one dies."

Gianna was an old woman, half house-servant, half farm-servant, wholly friend; she had lived at the Terra Vergine all her life; big, gaunt, and very strong, she could do the work of a man, although she was over seventy years of age; burnt black by the sun, and with a pile of grey hair like the hank of flax on her distaff, she was feared by the whole district for her penetrating glance and her untiring energy. When Gianna was satisfied the stars had changed their courses, said the people, so rare was the event; therefore, that this little wanderer contented her was at once a miracle and a voucher indisputable.

So the child remained there; but her presence troubled Adone's mother, though Nerina was humble as a homeless dog, was noiseless and seldom seen, was obedient, agile, and became useful in many manners, and learned with equal eagerness the farm work taught her by Gianna, and the doctrine taught her by Don Silverio, for she was intelligent and willing in every way. Only Clelia Alba thought, "Perhaps Gianna's good heart misleads her. Gianna is rough; but she has a heart as tender at bottom as a ripe melon's flesh."

Anyhow, she took her old servant's word and allowed the child to remain. She could not bring herself to turn adrift a female thing to stray about homeless and hungry, and end in some bottomless pit. The child might be the devil's spawn. No one could be sure. But she had eyes which looked up straight and true, and were as clear as the river water where it flowed over pebbles in the shade. When the devil is in a soul he always grins behind the eyes; he cannot help it; and so you know him; thus, at least, they thought at Ruscino and in all the vale of Edera; and the devil did not lurk in the eyes of Nerina.

"Have I done right, reverend sir?" asked Clelia Alba of the Vicar of Ruscino.

"Oh, yes--yes--charity is always right," he answered, unwilling to discourage her in her benevolence; but in his own mind he thought, "The child is a child, but she will grow; she is brown, and starved, and ugly now, but she will grow; she is a female thing and she will grow, and I think she will be handsome later on; it would have been more prudent to have put some money in her hand and some linen in her wallet, and have let her pass on her way down the river. The saints forbid that I should put aloes into the honey of their hearts; but this child will grow."

Clelia Alba perceived that he had his doubts as she had hers. But they said nothing of them to each other. The issue would lie with Time, whom men always depict as a mower, but who is also a sower, too. However, for good or ill, she was there; and he knew that, having once harboured her, they would never drive her adrift. Clelia Alba was in every sense a good woman; a little hard at times, narrow of sympathy, too much shut up in her maternal passion; but in the main merciful and correct in judgment.

"If the child were not good the river would not have given her to us," said Adone to her; and believed it.

"Good-day, my son," said the voice of the Vicar, Don Silverio Frascara, behind him, where Adone worked in the fields. "Where did you find that scarecrow whom your mother has shown me just now?"

"She was in the river, most reverend, dancing along in it, as merry as a princess."

"But she is a skeleton!"

"Almost."

"And you know nothing of her?"

"Nothing, sir."

"You were more charitable than wise."

"One cannot let a little female thing starve whilst one has bread in the hutch. My mother is a virtuous woman. She will teach the child virtue."

"Let us hope so," said Don Silverio. "But all, my son, do not take kindly to that lesson."

"What will be, will be. The river brought her."

He credited the river with a more than human sagacity. He held it in awe and in reverence as a deity, as the Greeks of old held their streams. It would have drowned the child, he thought, if she had been an evil creature or of evil augury. But he did not say so, for he did not care to provoke Don Silverio's fine fleeting ironical smile.

A goatherd who passed some few days later with his flock on his way to the mountains recognised the little girl.

"You are Black Fausto's daughter," he said to her. "Is he dead? Eh, well, we must all die. May his soul rest."

To Gianna, who questioned him, he said, "Yes, he was a good soul. Often have I seen him down in the Roman plains. He worked himself to death. These gangs of labourers get poor pay. I saw him also in the hills where this girl comes from, ever so high up, you seem to touch the sky. I summered there two years ago; he had his womankind in a cabin, and he took all that he got home to them. Aye, he was a good soul. We can come away out of the heats, but they have to stay down in them; for the reaping and the sowing are their chief gain, and they get the fever into their blood, and the worms into their bellies, and it kills them mostly before they are forty. You see, at Ansalda, where he came from, it was snow eight months out of the twelve, so the heats and the mists killed him: for the air you are born in you want, and if you do not get it in time you sicken."

"Like enough," said Gianna, who herself had never been out of sight of the river Edera ever since she had been a babe in swaddling clothes. "Tell me, gossip, was the child born in wedlock?"

"Eh, eh!" said the goatherd grinning. "That I would not take on me to say. But like enough, like enough; they are always ready to go before the priest in those high hills."

The little girl glided into her place humbly and naturally, with no servility but with untiring willingness and thankfulness. It seemed to her an amazing favour of heaven to live with these good people; to have a roof over her head and food regularly every day. Up there in her home, amongst the crags of Ansalda, she had never known what it was not to have a daily hunger gnawing always in her entrails, and making her writhe at night on her bed of dry leaves. In her thirteen years of life she had never once had enough--no one ever had. A full stomach had been a thing unknown.

She began to grow, she began to put a little flesh on her bones; they had cut her hair short, for it had been so rough, and it grew again burnished and bright like copper; colour came into her cheeks and lips; she seemed to spring upward, visibly, like a young cane. She worked hard, but she worked willingly, and she was well nourished on sound food, though it had little variety and was entirely vegetable; and every day she went down and bathed in the river at the same place where she had sat nude under the dock leaves whilst her skirt dried in the sun.

To her the Terra Vergine was Paradise itself; to be fed, to be clothed, to have a mattress to sleep on, to work amongst the flowers and the grass and the animals--it was all so beautiful, she thought sometimes that she must be in heaven.

She spoke little. Since she had been under this roof she had grown ashamed of the squalor and starvation and wretchedness of her past existence. She did not like to think of it even; it had been no fault of hers, but she felt ashamed that she ever should have been that little, filthy, unkempt, naked thing, grovelling on the clay floor, and fighting for mouldy crusts with the other children on the rock of Ansalda.

"If I had only known when father was alive," she thought; but even if she had known all she knew now, what could she have done? There had been nothing to use, nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and the rain and the snow and the wind had come in on them where they had lain huddled together on their bed of rotten leaves. Now and then she said something of that rude childhood of hers to Adone; she was afraid of the women, but not of him; she trotted after him as the little white curly dog Signorino trotted after Don Silverio.

"Do not think of those dark days, little one," he said to her. "They are gone by. Think of your parents and pray for their souls; but let the rest go; you have all your life to live."

"My mother was young when she died," said the child. "If she had had food she would not have died. She said so. She kept on gnawing a bit of rag which was soaked in water; you cheat hunger that way, you know, but it does not fill you."

"Pour soul! Poor soul!" said Adone, and he thought of the great markets he had seen in the north, the droves of oxen, the piles of fruits, the long lines of wine carts, the heaps of slaughtered game, the countless shops with their electric light, the trains running one after another all the nights and every night to feed the rich; and he thought, as he had thought when a boy, that the devil had _troppo braccio_, if any devil indeed there were beside man himself.

Should there be anywhere on the face of the earth, young women, good women, mothers of babes who died of sheer hunger like this mother of Nerina's up yonder in the snows of the Abruzzo? He thought not; his heart revolted at the vision of her, a living skeleton on her heap of leaves.

"Father brought all he had," continued the child, "but he could not come back until after harvest, and when he came back she had been in the ground two months and more. They put him in the same ditch when his turn came; but she was no longer there, for they take up the bones every three years and burn them. They say they must, else the ditch would get too full."

Adone shuddered. He knew that tens of thousands died so, and had died so ever since the days of Phenicians and Gauls and Goths. But it revolted him. The few gorged, the many famished--strange disproportion! unkind and unfair balance!

But what remedy was there?

Adone had read some socialistic and communistic literature; but it had not satisfied him; it had seemed to him vain, verbose, alluring, but unreal, no better adapted to cure any real hunger than the soaked rag of Nerina's mother.

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