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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter III
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter III Post by :Tumbarumba Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1792

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter III

The Valdedera is situated on the south of the Marches, on the confines of what is now the territorial division of the Abruzzo-Molese, and so lies between the Apennines and the Adriatic, fanned by cool winds in summer from the eternal snow of the mountain peaks, and invigorated in all seasons by breezes from the Adrian Sea.

Ruscino, placed midway in the valley, is only a village to which no traveller has for many years come, and of which no geographer ever speaks; it is marked on the maps of military topographers, and is, of course, inscribed on the fiscal rolls, but is now no more than a village; though once, when the world was young, it was the Etruscan Rusciae, and then the Latin Ruscinonis; and then, when the Papacy was mighty, it was the militant principality of the fortified town of Ruscino. But it was, when the parish of Don Silverio, an almost uninhabited village; a pale, diminutive, shrunken relic of its heroic self; and of it scarcely any man knows anything except the few men who make their dwelling there; sons of the soil, who spring from its marble dust and return to it.

It had shrunk to a mere hamlet as far as its population was counted; it shrank more and more with every census. There was but a handful of poor people who, when gathered together in the great church, looked no more than a few flies on a slab of marble.

The oldest men and women of the place could recall the time when it had been still of some importance as a posting place on the mountain route between the markets of the coast and the western towns, when its highway had been kept clean and clear through the woods for public and private conveyance, and when the clatter of horses' hoofs and merry notes of horns had roused the echoes of its stones. In that first half of the century, too, they had lived fairly well, and wine and fowls had cost next to nothing, and home-made loaves had been always large enough to give a beggar or a stray dog a slice. But these times had long been over; every one was hungry now, and every one a beggar, by way of change, and to make things equal, as the people said, with dreary mirth and helpless acquiescence in their lot. Like most riverain people, they lived chiefly by the river, cutting and selling its canes, its sallows, its osiers, its sedges, catching its fish, digging its sand; but there were few buyers in this depopulated district.

Don Silverio Frascara, its vicar, had been sent thither as a chastisement for his too sceptical and inquiring mind, his too undisciplined temper. Nearly twenty years in this solitude had chastened both; the fire had died out of his soul and the light out of his eyes. His days were as monotonous as those of the blinded ass set to turn the wine-press. All the steel of his spirit rusted, all the brilliancy of his brain clouded; his life was like a fine rapier which is left in a corner of a dusty attic and forgotten.

In certain rare states of the atmosphere the gold cross on St. Peter's is visible from some of the peaks of the Abruzzese Apennines. It looks like a speck of light far, far away in the silver-green of the western horizon. When one day he climbed to such an altitude and saw it thus, his heart contracted with a sickly pain, for in Rome he had dreamed many dreams; and in Rome, until his exile to the Vale of Edera, he had been a preacher of noted eloquence, of brilliant fascination, and of daring thought.

There had been long cypress alleys which at sunset had glowed with rose and gold, where he had in his few leisure hours builded up such visions for the future as illumined the unknown years to the eyes of an Ignatius, a Hildebrand, a Lacordaire, a Bossuet. On the place where those grand avenues had stretched their green length in the western light, and the seminarist had paced over the sward, there were now long, dreary lines of brick and stone, the beaten dust of roadways, the clang and smoke of engines: as the gardens had passed away so had passed his ambitions and visions; as the cypresses had been ground to powder in the steam mill, so was he crushed and effaced under an inexorable fate. The Church, intolerant of individuality, like all despotisms, had broken his spirit; like all despotisms the tyranny had been blind. But he had been rebellious to doctrine; she had bound him to her stake.

He would have been a great prelate, perhaps even a great Pope; but he would have been also a great reformer, so she stamped him down into nothingness under her iron heel. And for almost a score of years she had kept him in Ruscino, where he buried and baptized the old and new creatures who squirmed in the dust, where any ordinary country priest able to gabble through the ritual could have done as well as he. Some few of the more liberal and learned dignitaries of the Church did indeed think that it was waste of great powers, but he had the Sacred College against him, and no one ventured to speak in his favour at the Vatican. He had no pious women of rank to plead for him, no millionaires and magnates to solicit his preferment. He was with time forgotten as utterly as a folio is forgotten on a library shelf until mildew eats its ink away and spiders nest between its leaves. He had the thirty pounds a year which the State pays to such parish priests; and he had nothing else.

He was a tall and naturally stately man, but his form was bent by that want of good food which is the chronic malady of many parts of Italy. There was little to eat in Ruscino, and had there been more there would have been no one who knew how to prepare it. Bread, beans, a little oil, a little lard, herbs which grew wild, goat's milk, cheese, and at times a few small river fish; these were all his sustenance: his feasts and his fasts were much alike, and the little wine he had he gave away to the sick and the aged. For this reason his high stature was bent and his complexion was of the clear, yellow pallor of old marbles; his profile was like the Caesarian outline on a medallion, and his eyes were deep wells of impenetrable thought; his finely cut lips rarely smiled, they had always upon them an expression of bitterness, as though the apple of life in its eating had been harsh and hard as a crab.

His presbytery was close to his church, a dreary place with only a few necessaries and many books within it, and his only servant was an old man, lame and stupid, who served also as sacristan.

It was a cure of souls which covered many miles but counted few persons. Outside the old walls of Ruscino nearly all the land of vale of Edera was untilled, and within them a few poverty-stricken people dragged out their days uncared for by any one, only remembered by the collectors of fiscal dues. "_They never forget," said the people. "As soon as one is born, always and in every season, until one's bones rattle down into the ditch of the dead, _they remember always."

The grasp of an invisible power took the crust off their bread, the toll off their oil, off their bed of sacking, off their plate of fish, and took their children when they grew to manhood and sent them into strange lands and over strange seas; they felt the grip of that hard hand as their forefathers had felt it under the Caesars, under the Popes, under the feudal lords, under the foreign kings; they felt it so now under the Casa Sabauda; the same, always the same; for the manners and titles of the State may change, but its appetite never lessens, and its greed never spares. For twice a thousand years their blood had flowed and their earnings had been wrung out of them in the name of the State, and nothing was changed in that respect; the few lads they begot amongst them went to Africa, now as under Pompeius or Scipio; and their corn sack was taken away from them under Depretis or Crispi, as under the Borgia or the Malatesta; and their grape skins soaked in water were taxed as wine, their salt for their soup-pot was seized as contraband, unless it bore the government stamp, and, if they dared say a word of resistance, there were the manacles and the prison under Vittorio and Umberto as under Bourbon or Bonaparte; for there are some things which are immutable as fate. At long intervals, during the passing of ages, the poor stir, like trodden worms, under this inexorable monotony of their treatment by their rulers; and then baleful fires redden the sky, and blood runs in the conduits, and the rich man trembles; but the cannon are brought up at full gallop and it is soon over; there is nothing ever really altered; the iron wheels only press the harder on the unhappy worm, and there is nothing changed.

Here at Ruscino there were tombs of nenfro which had overhung the river for thirty centuries; but those tombs have never seen any other thing than this, nor ever will, until the light and the warmth of the sun shall be withdrawn for ever, and the earth shall remain alone with her buried multitudes.

There was only Don Silverio who thought of such a thing as this, a scholar all alone amongst barbarians; for his heart ached for his barbarians, though they bore him no love in return for his pity. They would have liked better a gossiping, rotund, familiar, ignorant, peasant priest, one of themselves, chirping formula comfortably over skeleton corpses.

In default of other interests he interested himself in this ancient place, passing from neglect into oblivion, as his own life was doing. There were Etruscan sepulchres and Pelasgic caves which had been centuries earlier rifled of their objects of value, but still otherwise remained untouched under the acacia woods by the river. There were columns and terraces and foundations of marble which had been there when the Latin city of Ruscinonis had flourished, from the time of Augustus until its destruction by Theodoric. And nearest of all these to him were the Longobardo church and the ancient houses and the dismantled fortress and the ruined walls of what had been the fief of the Toralba, the mediaeval fortified town of Ruscino. It still kept this, its latest, name, but it kept little else. Thrice a thousand centuries had rolled over it, eating it away as the sea eats away a cliff. War and fire and time had had their will with it for so long that dropped acorns and pine-pips had been allowed leisure to sink between the stones, and sprout and bud and rise and spread, and were now hoary and giant trees, of which the roots were sunk deep into its ruins, its graves, its walls.

It had been Etruscan, it had been Latin, it had been Longobardo, it had been Borgian and Papal; through all these changes a fortified city, then a castellated town, then a walled village; and a village it now remained. It will never be more; before many generations pass it will probably have become still less; a mere tumulus, a mere honeycomb of buried tombs. It was now perishing, surely though slowly, but in peace, with the grass growing on its temple stairs and the woodbine winding round its broken columns.

The trained and stored intellect of Don Silverio could set each period of its story apart, and read all the vestiges remaining of each. Ruscino was now to all others a mere poverty-stricken place, brown and gaunt and sorrowful, scorching in the sun, with only the river beneath it to keep it clean and alive. But to him it was as a palimpsest of surpassing value and interest, which, sorely difficult to decipher, held its treasures close from the profane and the ignorant, but tempted and rewarded the scholar, like the lettering on a Pompeian nuptial ring, the cyphers on a funeral urn of Herculaneum. "After all, my lot might be worse than it is," he thought with philosophy. "They might have sent me to a modern manufacturing town in one of the Lombard provinces, or exiled me to some native settlement in Eritrea."

Here, at least, he had history and nature, and he enjoyed thousands of hours undisturbed in which to read or write, or muse and ponder on this chronicle of brick and stone, this buried mass of dead men's labours and of dead men's dust.

Doubtless, his manuscripts would lie unknown, unread; no man would care for them; but the true scholar cares neither for public not posterity; he lives for the work he loves; and if he knows that he will have few readers in the future--maybe none--how many read Grotius, or Boethius, or Chrysostom, or Jerome?

Here, like a colony of ants, the generations had crowded one on another, now swept away by the stamp of a conqueror's heel and now succeeded by another toiling swarm, building anew each time out of ruin, undaunted by the certainty of destruction, taught nothing by the fate of their precursors. From the profound sense of despair which the contemplation of the uselessness of human effort, and the waste of human life, produces on the scholar's mind, it was a relief to him to watch the gladness of its river, the buoyancy of its currents, the foam of white blossom on its acacia and syringa thickets, the gold sceptres and green lances of its iris-pseudacorus, the sweep of the winds through its bulrushes and canebreaks, the glory of colour in the blue stars of its veronica, the bright rosy spikes of its epilobium. The river seemed always happy, even when the great rainfall of autumn churned it into froth and the lightnings illumined its ink-black pools.

It was on the river that he had first made friends with Adone, then a child of six, playing and splashing in the stream, on a midsummer noon. Don Silverio also was bathing. Adone, a little nude figure, as white as alabaster in the hot light, for he was very fair of skin, sprang suddenly out of the water on to the turf above where his breeches and shirt had been left; he was in haste, for he had heard his mother calling to him from their fields; an adder started out of a coil of bindweed and would itself round his ankle as he stooped for his clothes.

The priest, standing waist-deep in the river a few yards away, saw it before the child did, and cried out to him: "Stand still till I come! Be not afraid!" Adone understood, and, although trembling with terror and loathing as he realised his danger, and felt the slimy clasp of the snake, remained motionless as he was bidden to do. In a second of time the priest had leaped through the water to his side, seized the adder, and killed it.

"Good boy," he said to the child. "If you had moved your foot the creature would have bitten you."

Adone's eyes filled with tears.

"Thank you, sir; thank you for mother," he said very gently, for he was a shy child, though courageous.

The priest stroked his curls.

"There is death in the grass very often. We should not fear death, but neither should we run risk of it uselessly, especially when we have a mother whom it would grieve. Come and bathe at this spot, at this hour, to-morrow and every day, if you like. I will be here and look after you, you are little to be alone."

They were often together from that day onwards.

The brutishness and greed of his flock oppressed him. He was sent here to have care of their souls, but where were their souls? They would all have sold them to the foul fiend for a mess of artichokes fried in oil. In such a solitude as this he had been glad to be able to teach and move the young malleable mind of Adone Alba; the only one of them who seemed to have any mind at all. Adone also had a voice as sweet as a nightingale in the syringa bushes in May; and it pierced the gloom of the old naked gaunt church as a nightingale's thrills through the dark hour before dawn.

There was no other music in that choir except the children's or youths' voices; there was nothing to make music with except those flexible pipes of the boyish throats; and Don Silverio loved and understood choral music; he had studied it in Rome. Adone never refused to sing for him, and when the voice of adolescence had replaced that of childhood, he would still stand no less docilely by the old marble lectern, and wake the melodies of early masters from the yellow pages.

The church was as damp as a vault of the dead; cold even when the dog-star reigned in the heavens. The brasses and bronzes were rusted with moisture, and the marbles were black with the spores of mould; rain dripped through the joints of the roof, and innumberable sparrows made their nests there; the mosaics of the floor were green from these droppings, and from those of the rain; the sun never entered through any of the windows, which were yellow with age and dust; but here, with a lantern for their only light, they solaced each other with the song of the great choral masters. Only Adone, although he never said or showed it, was glad when the huge key groaned in the lock of the outer door, and he ran out into the evening starlight, down the steep streets, across the bridge, and felt the fresh river air blowing on him, and heard the swirling of the water amongst the frost-stiffened canes, and saw far off in the darkened fields the glimmer of a light--the light of home.

That old home was the dearest thing on earth to the young man. He had never been away from it but once, when the conscription called him. In that time, which had been to him like a nightmare, the time of his brief exile to the army, because he was the only son of a widow, he had been sent to a northern city, one of commerce and noise and crowded, breathless life; he had been cooped up in it like a panther in a den, like a hawk in a cage. What he saw of the vices and appetites of men, the pressure of greed and of gain, the harsh and stupid tyranny of the few, the slavish and ignoble submission of the many, the brutish bullying, the crouching obedience, the deadly routine, the lewd licence of reaction--all filled him with disdain and with disgust. When he returned to his valley he bathed in the waters of Edera before he crossed his mother's threshold.

"Make me clean as I was when I left you!" he cried, and took the water in the hollow of his hands and kissed it.

But no water flows on the earth, from land to sea, which can wholly cleanse the soul as it cleanses the body.

That brief time under arms he cursed as thousands of youths have cursed it. Its hated stigma and pollution never wholly passed away. It left a bitterness on his lips, a soil upon his memories. But how sweet to him beyond expression, on his return, were the sound of the rushing river in the silence of the night, the pure odours of the blossoming beanfields, the clear dark sky with its radiant stars, the sense of home, the peace of his own fields!

"Mother, whether life for me shall be long or short, here its every hour shall be spent!" he said, as he stood on his own ground and looked through the olive-trees to the river, running swiftly and strong beneath the moon.

"Those are good words, my son," said Clelia Alba, and her hands rested on his bowed head.

He adored both the soil and the water of this place of his birth; no toil upon either seemed to him hard or mean. All which seemed to him to matter much in the life of a man was to be free, and he was so. In that little kingdom of fertile soil and running stream no man could bid him come and go, no law ruled his uprising and his down lying; he had enough for his own wants and the wants of those about him, enough for the needs of the body, and the mind here had not many needs; at the Terra Vergine he was his own master, except so far as he cheerfully deferred to his mother; and all which he put into the earth he could take out of it for his own usage, though indeed the fiscal authorities claimed well nigh one-half, rating his land at far more than its worth. No doubt scientific agriculture might have made it yield more than he did; but he was content to follow the ways of old; he farmed as men did when the Sun-god was the farm slave of Admetus. The hellebore and the violets grew at will in his furrows; the clematis and the ivy climbed his figtrees; the fritillaria and daphne grew in his pastures, and he never disturbed them, or scared the starling and the magpie which fluttered in the wake of his wooden plough. The land was good land, and gave him whatever he wanted; he grudged nothing off it to bird, or beast, or leaf, or flower, or to the hungry wayfarer who chanced to pass by his doors. In remote places the old liberal, frank, open-handed hospitality of an earlier time is still in Italy a practice as well as a tradition.

The house was their own, and the earth gave them their bread, their wine, their vegetables, their oil, hemp, and flax for their linen, and herbs for their soup; of the olive-oil they had more than enough for use, and the surplus was sold once a year in the nearest town, San Beda, and served to meet the fiscal demands. They had rarely any ready money, but no peasant in Italy ever expects, unless by some luck at lotto, to have money in his pocket.

He worked hard; at some seasons extremely hard; he hired labour sometimes, but not often, for to pay for the hiring takes the profit off the land. But he had been used to such work from childhood, and it was never irksome to him; even though he rose in the dark, and rarely went home to supper till the stars were shining. He had no near neighbours except the poor folks in Ruscino. All surrounding him was grass and moor and wood, called communal property, but in reality belonging legally to no one; vast, still, fragrant leagues of uninhabited country stretching away to the blue hills, home of the fox and the hare and the boar, of the hawk and the woodpecker and the bittern.

Through those wilds he loved to wander alone; the sweet stillness of a countryside which was uncontaminated by the residence of men stilling the vague unrest of his youth, and the mountains towering in the light lending to the scene the charm of the unknown.

In days of storm or rain he read with Don Silverio or sang in the church; on fine holy-days he roamed far afield in the lonely heatherlands and woodlands which were watered by the Edera. He carried a gun, for defence if need be, for there were boars and wolves in these solitudes; but he never used it upon bird or beast.

Like St. Francis of Assissi, both he and Don Silverio took more pleasure in the life than in the death of fair winged things.

"We are witness, twice in every year, of that great and inexplicable miracle," the priest said often, "that passage of small, frail, unguided creatures, over seas and continents, through tempests and simoons, and with every man's hand against them, and death waiting to take them upon every shore, by merciless and treacherous tricks, and we think nought of it; we care nought for it; we spread the nets and the gins--that is all. We are unworthy of all which makes the earth beautiful--vilely unworthy!"

One of the causes of his unpopularity in Ruscino was the inexorable persistence with which he broke their gins, lifted their nets, cleared off their birdlime, dispersed their watertraps, and forbade the favourite night poaching by lanterns in the woods. More than once they threatened his life, but he only smiled.

"_Faccia pure_!" he said, "you will cut a knot which I did not tie, and which I cannot myself undo."

But they held him in too much awe to dare to touch him, and they knew that again and again he went on bread and water himself to give his wine to their sick, or his strip of meat to their old people.

Moreover, they feared Adone.

"If you touch a hair of Don Silverio's head, or the hem of his cassock, I will burn Ruscino," said Adone to one of those who had threatened his friend, "and you will all burn with it, for the river will not help you; the river will turn to oil and make the flames rage tenfold."

The people were afraid as they heard him, for the wrath of the gentle is terrible from its rarity.

"For sure 'tis the dead Tor'alba as speak in him," they said with fright under their breath, for there was a tale told in the district that Adone Alba was descended from the old war-lords.

The veterans of the village and the countryside remembered hearing their fathers say that the family of the Terra Vergine were descended from those great marquises who had reigned for centuries in that Rocca which was now a grim, ivy-covered ruin on the north of the Edera water. But more than this no one could say; no one could tell how the warlike race had become mere tillers of the soil, or how those who had measured out life and death up and down the course of the valley had lost their power and possessions. There were vague traditions of a terrible siege, following on a great battle in the vale; that was all.

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