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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter IV
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter IV Post by :TheWebContent Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :3224

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter IV

The church in which Don Silverio officiated every morning and evening for the benefit of a few old crones, had once been a Latin temple; it had been built from the Corinthian pillars, the marble peristyle, the rounded, open dome, like that of the Pantheon, of a pagan edifice; and to these had been added a Longobardo belfry and chancel; pigeons and doves roosted and nested in it, and within it was cold even in midsummer, and dark always as a vault. It was dedicated to St. Jerome, and was a world too wide for the shrunken band of believers who came to worship in it; there was a high, dark altar said to have been painted by Ribera, and nothing else that spoke in any way of art, except the capitals of its pillars and the Roman mosaics of its floor.

The Longobardo bell-tower was of vast height and strength; within it were various chambers, and these chambers had served through many ages as muniment-rooms. There were innumerable documents of many different epochs, almost all in Latin, a few in Greek. Don Silverio, who was a fine classic as well as a learned archæologist, spent all his lonely and cold winter evenings in the study of these early chronicles, his oil lamp burning pale and low, his little white dog lying on his knees.

These manuscripts gave him great trouble, and were in many parts almost unintelligible, in others almost effaced by damp, in others again gnawed by rats and mice. But he was interested in his labours and in his subject, and after several years of work on them, he was able to make out a consecutive history of the Valdedera, and he was satisfied that the peasant of the Terra Vergine had been directly descended from the feudal-lords of Ruscino. That pittance of land by the waterside under the shadow of the ruined citadel was all which remained of the great fief of the youth in whose veins ran the blood of men who had given princes, and popes, and cardinals, and captains of condottieri, and patrons of art, and conquerors or revolted provinces, to the Italy of old from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. For three hundred years the Tor'alba had been lords there, owning all their eyes could reach from mountain to sea; then after long siege the walled town and their adjacent stronghold had fallen into the hands of hereditary foes whose forces had been united against them. Fire and steel had done their worst, and only a month-old child had escaped from the burning Rocca, being saved in a boat laden with reeds at anchor in the river, and hidden by a faithful vassal. The child had grown to manhood and had lived to old age, leading a peasant's life on the banks of the Edera; the name had been mutilated in common usage amongst those who spoke only the dialect of the province, and for three more centuries father and son had succeeded each other, working for their daily bread where their ancestors had defied Borgia and Della Rovere, and Feltrio, and Malatesta; the gaunt dark shade of the dismantled citadel lying athwart their fields between them and the setting sun.

Should he tell Adone this or not?

Would the knowledge of his ancestry put a thorn in the boy's contented heart? Would it act as a spur to higher things, or be merely as the useless sting of a nettle?

Who could say?

Don Silverio remembered the gorgeous dreams of his own youth; and what had been their issue?

At fifty years old he was buried in a deserted village, never hearing from year's end to year's end one word of friendship or phrase of culture.

Would it be well or would it be wrong to disturb that tranquil acquiescence in a humble destiny? He could not decide. He dared not take upon himself so much responsibility. "In doubt do nothing" has been the axiom of many wise men. The remembrance of the maxim closed his lips. He had himself been in early manhood passionately ambitious; he was only a priest, but of priests are made the Gregorio, the Bonifazio, the Leone of the Papal throne; to the dreams of a seminarist nothing is impossible. But Adone had no such dreams; he was as satisfied with his lot as any young steer which wants nothing more than the fair, fresh fields of its birth. But one day as he was sitting with the boy, then fifteen years old, on the south bank of the Edera, the spirit moved him and he spake. It was the day of San Benedetto, when the swallows come. The grass was full of pink lychnis and yellow buttercups. A strong east wind was blowing from the sea. A number of martins, true to the proverb, were circling gaily above the stream. The water, reflecting the brilliant hues of the heavens, was hurrying on its seaward way, swollen by recent rains and hastened by a strong wind blowing from the eastern mountains.

The lands of the Terra Vergine lay entirely on the south-east bank of the river, and covered many acres, of which some was moorland still. Almost opposite to it was the one-arched stone bridge, attributed to Theodoric, and on the northern bank was the ruined Rocca, towering above the trees which had grown up around it; whilst hidden by it and by the remains of the fortifications was that which was now the mere village of Ruscino.

"Listen, Adone!" he said in his deep, melodious voice, grave and sweet as a mass of Palestrina. "Listen, and I will tell you the tale of yonder donjon and village, and of the valley of the Edera, so far as I have been able to make it out for myself."

According to the writers whose manuscripts he had discovered the town of Ruscino, like Cremona, had existed before the siege of Troy, that is, six hundred years before the foundation of Rome. Of this there was no proof except tradition, but the ruins of the walls and the tombs by the riverside and in the fields proved that it had been an Etruscan city, and of some considerable extent and dignity, in those remote ages.

"The foundations of the Rocca," he continued, "were probably part of a great stronghold raised by the Gauls, who undoubtedly conquered the whole of this valley at the time when they settled themselves in what is now the Marches, and founded Senegallia. It was visited by Asdrubal, and burned by Alaric; then occupied by the Greek free lances of Justinian; in the time of the Frankish victories, in common with greater places, it was forced to swear allegiance to the first papal Adrian. After that it had been counted as one of the fiefs comprised in the possessions of the Pentapolis; and later on, when the Saracens ravaged the shores of the Adriatic, they had come up the Valdedera and pillaged and burned again. Gregory the Ninth gave the valley to the family of its first feudal lords, the Tor'alba, in recompense for military service, and they, out of the remains of the Gallic, Etruscan, and Roman towns, rebuilt Ruscino and raised the Rocca on the ruins of the castle of the Gauls. There, though at feud many time with their foes, the Della Rovere, the Malatesta, and the Dukes of Urbino, they held their own successfully, favoured usually by Rome, and for three centuries grew in force and in possessions. But they lost the favour of Rome by their haughtiness and independence; and under pretext that they merited punishment, Cesare Borgia brought troops of mercenaries against them, and after a fierce conflict in the valley (the terrible battle of which the villagers preserved the memory) the town was besieged and sacked.

"After this battle, which must have taken place on yonder moor, to the north-west, for the assailants had crossed the Apennines, the Tor'alba and the remnant of men remaining to them retreated within the walls of Ruscino.

"The whole place and the citadel were burning, set on fire by order of Borgia. The church alone was spared, and the dead men were as thick as stones on the walls, and in the streets, and in the nave of the church, and on the streets, and in the houses. This river was choked with corpses, and dark with blood. The black smoke towered to the sky in billows like a sea. The mercenaries swarmed over the bastions and violated the women, and cut off their breasts and threw their bodies down into the stream and their children after them. The Lady of Tor'alba, valiant as Caterina Sforza, was the first slain.

"The whole place was given up to flame and carnage, and the great captains were as helpless as dead oxen. They were all slain amongst their troopers and their vassals, and their bodies were burnt when the fortress was fired.

"Only one little child escaped the massacre, a month-old babe, son of the Marquis of Tor'alba, who was hidden by a faithful servant amongst the reeds of the Edera in a basket. This servant was the only male who escaped slaughter.

"The river rushes were more merciful than man, they kept the little new-born lordling safe until his faithful vassal, under cover of the night, when the assailants were drunk and stupid with licence gratified, could take him to a poor woman to be suckled in a cottage farther down the river. How he grew up I know not, but certain it is that thirty years later one Federigo Tor'alba was living where you live, and your house and land have never changed hands or title since; only your name has been truncated, as often happens in the speech of the people. How this land called the Terra Vergine was first obtained I cannot say; the vassal may have saved some gold or jewels which belonged to his masters, and have purchased these acres, or the land may have been taken up and put gradually into cultivation without any legal right to it; of this there is no explanation, no record. But from that time the mighty lordship of Tor'alba has been extinct, and scarcely exists now even in local tradition; although their effigies are on their tombs, and the story of their reign can be deciphered by any one who can read a sixteenth-century manuscript, as you might do for yourself, my son, had you been diligent."

Adone was silent. He had listened with attention, as he did to everything which was said or read to him by Don Silverio. But he was not astonished, because he had often heard, though vaguely, the legend of his descent.

"Of what use is it?" he said, as he sat moving the bright water with his bare slim feet. "Nothing will bring it all back."

"It should serve some great end," said Don Silverio, not knowing very well what he meant or to what he desired to move the young man's mind. "Nobility of blood should make the hands cleaner, the heart higher, the aims finer."

Adone had shrugged his shoulders.

"We are all equal!" he answered.

"We are not all equal," the priest said curtly. "There is not equality in nature. Are there even two pebbles alike in the bed of the river?"

Don Silverio, for the first time in his life, could have willingly let escape him some unholy word. It incensed him that he could not arouse in the boy any of that interest and excitement which had moved his own feelings so strongly as he had spent his spare evenings poring over the crabbed characters and the dust-weighted vellum of the charred and mutilated archives discovered by him in a secret closet in the bell-tower of his church. With infinite toil, patience, and ability he had deciphered the Latin of rolls, registers, letters, chronicles, so damaged by water, fire, and the teeth of rats and mice, that it required all an archæologist's ingenuity and devotion to make out any sense from them. Summer days and winter nights had found him poring over the enigma of these documents, and now, when he had conquered and revealed their secret, he who was most concerned in it was no more stirred by curiosity or pride than if he had been one of the big tawny owls dwelling in the dusk of the belfry.

Don Silverio was a learned man and a holy man, and should have despised such vanities, but an historic past had great seduction for him; a militant race fascinated him against his conscience, and aristocracy allured him despite all his better judgement; it seemed to him that if he had learned that he had come from a knightly _gens such as this of the Tor'alba, he would have been more strongly moved to self-glorification than would have become a servant of the Church. He himself had no knowledge even of his own near parentage; he had been a forsaken child, left one dark autumn night in the iron cradle of the gates of a foundling hospital in Reggio Calabrese. His names had been bestowed on him by the chaplain of the institution; and his education had been given him by an old nobleman of the town, attracted by his appearance and intelligence as a child. He was now fifty years of age; and he had never known anything of kith and kin, or of the mingled sweetness and importunity of any human tie.

Adone sat silent, looking up at the fortress of his forefathers. He was more moved than his words showed.

"If we were lords of the land and the town and the people, we were also lords of the river," was what he was thinking; and that thought moved him to strong pride and pleasure, for he loved the river with a great love, only equalled by that which he felt for his mother.

"They were lords of the river?" he asked aloud.

"Undoubtedly," answered the priest. "It was one of the highways of the province from east to west and _vice versâ in that time; the signoria of this Rocca took toll, kept the fords and bridges and ferries; none could pass up and down under Ruscino without being seen by the sentinels on the ramparts here. The Edera was different then; more navigable, perhaps less beautiful. Rivers change like nations. There have been landslips which have altered its course and made its torrents. In some parts it is shallower, in others deeper. The woods which enclosed its course then have been largely felled, though not wholly. Sand has been dug from it incessantly, and rocks have fallen across it. As you know, no boats or barges which draw any depth of water can ascend or descend it now without being towed by horses; and in some parts, as here, it is course, too precipitous in its fall for even small boats to adventure themselves upon it: its shoals of lilies can blossom unmolested where its surface is level. Yes; undoubtedly, the lords of Ruscino were also lords of the Edera, from its mouth to its source; and their river formed at once their strongest defence and their weakest point. It was difficult sufficiently to guard so many miles of water; above all because, as I say, its course was so much clearer, and its depth so much greater, that a flotilla of rafts or cutters could ascend it from its mouth as far as this town in the Middle Ages; in fact, more than once, corsairs from the Levant and from Morocco did so ascend it, and though they were driven back by the culverins of the citadel, they every time carried off to slavery some of the youths and maidens of the plain."

Adone gazed across the river to the moss-grown walls which had once been fortifications still visible on the side of the hill, and to the frowning donjon, the blackened towers, the ruined bastions, of what had been once the Rocca, with the amber light and rosy clouds of the unseen sun behind them.

"Teach me Latin, your reverence," was all he said.

"I have always offered to do so," said Don Silverio.

Adone was again silent, swinging his slender brown feet in the water, and looking always upward at the evening sky beyond the great round shape of the dismantled fortress.

He learned some Latin with much difficulty, studying hard in his evening leisure in the winters, and with time he could decipher for himself, with assistance from Don Silverio, the annals of the Tor'alba; and he saw that it was as certain as anything grown over with the lichens and cobwebs of time can be that he himself was the last of the race.

"Your father used to say something of the sort," his mother said; "but he had only heard it piecemeal from old people, and never heard enough to put the pieces together as you have done. 'What does it matter either?' he used to say; and he said those great lords had been cut-throats on the land and robbers on the river. For your father's father had worn the red shirt in his youth, as I have told you often, and thought but little of lords and princes."

But Adone was different; the past allured him with the fascination which it has for poets and scholars; he was neither of these, except in a vague, unconscious way; but his imagination was strong and fertile once aroused; the past, as suggested to him by the vicar, by degrees became to him a living thing and nearer than the present, as it is to scholars who are poets. He was neither scholar nor poet; but he loved to muse upon that far-off time when his forefathers had been lords of the land and of the water.

He did not want the grandeur, he did not envy the power which they had possessed; but he wished that, like them, he could own the Edera from its rise in the hills to its fall into the sea.

"Oh, dear river!" he sang to it tenderly, "I love you. I love you as the dragon-flies do, as the wagtails do, as the water voles do; I am you and you are me. When I lean over you and smile, you smile back to me. You are beautiful in the night and the morning, when you mirror the moon and play with the sunbeams, when you are angry under the wind, and when you are at peace in the heat of the noon. You have been purple with the blood of my people, and now you are green and fresh as the leaves of the young vine. You have been black with powder and battle, now you are fair with the hue of the sky and the blue of the myosotis. You are the same river as you were a thousand years ago, and yet you only come down to-day from the high hills, young and strong, and ever renewing. What is the life of man beside yours?"

That was the ode which he sang in the dialect of the province, and the stream washed his feet as he sang; and with his breath on his long reed flute--the same flute as youths have made and used ever since the days that Apollo reigned on Saracte--he copied the singing of the river, which piped as it ran, like birds at dawn.

But this was only at such times as daybreak or early night when he was alone.

There were but a few people within the ruined walls of Ruscino; most of the houses were tenantless and tottering to their fall. A few old bent men and weather-beaten women and naked children climbed its steep lanes and slept under its red-brown roofs, bawled to each other from its deep arched doorways to tell of death or birth, and gathered dandelion leaves upon its ramparts to cure their shrunken and swollen bladders. He knew them every one, he was familiar with and kind to them; but he was aloof from them by temperament and thought, and he showed them his soul no more than the night birds in the towers showed their tawny breasts and eyes of topaz to the hungry and ragged fowls which scratched amongst the dust and refuse on the stones in the glare of day.

"_Il Bel Adone_!" sighed matrons and the maidens of the scattered farms and the old gloomy castellated granges which here and there, leagues distant from one another, broke the green and silent monotony of the vast historic country whose great woods sloped from hill to plain. But to these, too, he was indifferent, though they had the stern and solid beauty of the Latium women on their broad low brows, their stately busts, their ox-like eyes, their shapely feet and limbs; and often, joined to that, the red-gold hair and the fair skin of the Adriatic type. As they bound the sheaves, and bore the water-jars, and went in groups through the seeding grass to chapel, or fountain, or shrine, they had the free, frank grace of an earlier time; just such as these had carried the votive doves to the altars of Venus and chanted by the waters of the Edera the worship of Isis and her son. But to Adone they had no charm. What did he desire or dream of? Himself he could not have said. Perhaps they were too warm; it was certain that they left him cold.

Sometimes he learned over the river and looked longingly into its depths.

"Show me the woman I shall love," he said to the water, but it hastened on, glad, tumultuous, unheeding; and he only saw the reflection of the white jonquils or of the golden sword rush on its banks.

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