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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter V
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter V Post by :wappmanb Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :849

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter V

Fruits ripen quickly in these provinces, and children become women in a summer hour; but with Nerina, through want and suffering and hunger, physical growth had been slow, and she remained long a child in many things and many ways. Only in her skill and strength for work was she older than her actual age.

She could hoe and reap and sow: she could row and steer the boat amongst the shallows as well as any man; she could milk the cow, and put the steers in the waggon; she could card hemp and flax, and weave and spin either; she could carry heavy weights balanced on her head; she was strong and healthy and never ill, and with it all she was happy. Her large bright eyes were full of contentment, and her rosy mouth often smiled out of the mere gladness of living. Her senses were still asleep and her young soul wanted nothing more than life gave her.

"You can earn your bread anywhere now, little one," said Clelia Alba to her one day, when she had been there three years.

The girl shrank as under a blow; her brown and rosy face grew colourless. "Do you wish me to go away?" she said humbly.

"No, no," said Clelia, although that was what she did desire. "No, not while I live. But should I die, you could not stay here with my son."

"Why?" said Nerina. She did not understand why.

Clelia hesitated.

"You ought to feel that yourself," she said harshly. "Young men and young maids do not dwell together, unless"

"Unless what?" asked Nerina.

"You are a simpleton indeed, or you are shamming," thought Adone's mother; but aloud she only said, "It is not in our usage."

"But you will not die," said Nerina anxiously. "Why should you think of dying, madonna? You are certainly old, but you are not so very, very old."

Clelia smiled.

"You do not flatter, child. So much the better. Run away and drive in those fowls. They are making havoc in the beanfield."

She could not feel otherwise than tenderly towards this young creature, always so obedient, so tractable, so contented, so grateful; but she would willingly have placed her elsewhere could she have done so with a clear conscience.

"My son will never do ill by any creature under his roof," she thought. "But still youth is youth; and the girl grows."

"We must dower her and mate her; eh, your reverence?" she said to Don Silverio when he passed by later in that day.

"Willingly," he answered. "But to whom? To the owls or the cats at Ruscino?"

In himself he thought, "She is as straight and as slight as a chestnut wand, but she is as strong. When you shall try to bend her where she shall not want to go you will not succeed."

For he knew the character of Nerina in the confessional better than Clelia Alba judged of it in her house.

"It was not wise to bring her here," he added aloud. "But having committed that error it would be unfair to charge the child with the painful payment of it. You are a just woman, my good friend; you must see that."

Clelia saw it clearly, for she never tried to trick her conscience.

"Your reverence mistakes me," she answered. "I would not give her to any but a good man and a good home."

"They are not common," said Don Silverio. "Nor are they as easy to find as flies in summer."

What was the marriage of the poor for the woman? What did it bring? What did it mean? The travail of child-bearing, the toil of the fields, the hardship of constant want, the incessant clamour on her ear of unsatisfied hunger, the painful rearing of sons whom the State takes away from her as soon as they are of use, painful ending of life on grudged crusts as a burden to others on a hearth no longer her own. This, stripped of glamour, is the lot nine times out of ten of the female peasant -- a creature of burden like the cow she yokes, an animal valued only in her youth and her prime; in old age or in sickness like the stricken and barren goat, who has nought but its skin and its bones.

Poor little Nerina!

As he went home he saw her cutting fodder for a calf; she was kneeling in a haze of rose colour made by the many blossoms of the _orchis maculat which grew there. The morning light sparkled in the wet grass. She got up as she saw him cross the field, dropped her curtsey low with a smile, then resumed her work, the dew, the sun, the sweet fresh scents shed on her like a benison.

"Poor little soul," thought Don Silverio. "Poor little soul! Has Adone no eyes?"

Adone had eyes, but they saw other things than a little maiden in the meadow-grass.

To her he was a deity; she believed in him and worshipped him with the strongest faith, as a little sister might have done. She would have fought for him like a little mastiff; she would have suffered in his service with rapture and pride; she was as vigilant for his interests as if she were fidelity incarnated. She watched over all that belonged to him, and the people of Ruscino feared her more than they feared Pierino the watch-dog. Woe betided the hapless wight who made free with the ripe olives, or the ripe grapes, with the fig or the peach or the cherry which grew on Adone's lands; it seemed to such marauders that she had a thousand eyes and lightning in her feet.

One day, when she had dealt such vigorous blows with a blackthorn stick on the back of a lad who had tried to enter the fowl-house, that he fell down and shrieked for pardon, Adone reproved her. "Remember they are very poor, Nerina," he said to her. "So were your own folks, you say."

"I know they are poor," replied Nerina; she held to her opinions. "But when they ask, you always give. Therefore it is vile to rob you. Besides," she added, "if you go on and let them steal and steal till you will have nothing left."

Whatever she saw, whatever she heard, she told Adone; and he gave ear to her because she was not a chatterer, but was usually of few words. All her intelligence was spent in the defence and in the culture of the Terra Vergine; she did not know her alphabet, and did not wish to do so; but she had the quickest of ears, the keenest of eyes, the brightest of brains.

One morning she came running to him where he was cutting barley.

"Adone! Adone!" she cried breathlessly, "there were strange men by the river to-day."

"Indeed," said Adone astonished, because strangers were never seen there. Ruscino was near no highroad, and the river had long ceased to be navigable.

"They asked me questions, but I put my hands to my ears and shook my head; they thought I was deaf."

"What sort of men were they?" he asked with more attention, for there were still those who lived by violence up in the forests which overhung the valley of the Edera.

"How do I know? They were clothed in long woollen bed-gowns, and they had boots on their feet, and on their heads hats shaped like kitchen-pans."

Adone smiled. He saw men from a town, or country fellows who aped such men, with a contempt which was born at once of that artistic sense of fitness which was in him, and of his adherence to the customs and habits of his province. The city-bred and city-clothed man looked to him a grotesque and helpless creature, much sillier than an ape.

"That sounds like citizens or townsfolk. What did they say?"

"I could not understand; but they spoke of the water, I think, for they pointed to it and said a great deal which I did not understand, and seemed to measure the banks, and took your punt and threw a chain into the water in places."

"Took castings? Used my punt? That is odd! I have never seen a stranger in my life by the Edera. Were they anglers?"

"No."

"Or sportsmen?"

"They had no guns."

"How many were they?"

"Three. They went away up the river talking."

"Did they cross the bridge?"

"No. They were not shepherds, or labourers, or priests," said Nerina. To these classes of men her own acquaintance was confined.

"Painters, perhaps?" said Adone; but no artists were ever seen there; the existence even of the valley was scarcely known, except to topographers.

"What are painters?" said Nerina.

"Men who sit and stare and then make splashes of colour."

"No; they did not do that."

"It is strange."

He felt vaguely uneasy that any had come near the water; as a lover dislikes the pressure of a crowd about his beloved in a street, so he disliked the thought of foreign eyes resting on the Edera. That they should have used his little punt, always left amongst the sedges, seemed to him a most offensive and unpardonable action.

He went to the spot where the intruders had been seen, but there was no trace of them, except that the wet sand bore footprints of persons who had, as she had said of them, worn boots. He followed these footprints for some mile or more up the edge of the stream, but there he lost them from sight; they had passed on to the grass of a level place, and the dry turf, cropped by sheep to its roots, told no tales. Near this place was a road used by cattle drivers and mules; it crossed the heather for some thousand yards, then plunged into the woods, and so went up over the hills to the town of Teramo, thirty-five kilometres away. It was a narrow, rough, steep road, wholly unfit for vehicles of any kind more tender than the rude ox-treggia, slow as a snail, with rounds of a tree-trunk for its wheels, and seldom used except by country folks.

He would have asked Don Silverio if he had heard or seen anything of any strangers, but the priest was away that day at one of the lonely moorland cabins comprised in his parish of Ruscino, where an old man, who had been a great sinner in his past, was at his last gasp, and his sons and grandsons and great-grandchildren all left him to meet his end as he might.

It was a fine day, and they had their grain to get in, and even the women were busy. They set a stoup of water by him, and put some in his nostrils, and shut the door to keep out the flies. It was no use to stay there they thought. If you helped a poor soul to give up the ghost by a hand on his mouth, or an elbow in his stomach, you got into trouble; it was safer to leave him alone when he was a-dying.

Don Silverio had given the viaticum to the old man the night before, not thinking he would outlive the night. He now found the door locked and saw the place was deserted. He broke the door open with a few kicks, and found the house empty save for the dying creature on the sacks of leaves.

"They would not wait! They would not wait -- hell take them!" said the old man, with a groan, his bony hands fighting the air.

"Hush, hush! the holy oil is on you," said Don Silverio. "They knew I should be here."

It was a charitable falsehood, but the brain of the old man was still too awake to be deceived by it.

"Why locked they the door, then? Hell take them! They are reaping in the lower fields -- hell take them!" he repeated, his bony, toothless jaws gnashing with each word.

He was eighty-four years old; he had been long the terror of his district and of his descendants, and they paid him out now that he was powerless; they left him alone in that sun-baked cabin, and they had carefully put his crutch out of reach, so that if any force should return to his paralysed body he should be unable to move.

It was the youngest of them, a little boy of seven years old, who had thought to do that; the crutch had hit him so often.

The day had been only beginning when Don Silverio had reached the cabin, but he resolved to await there the return of the family; its hours were many and long and cruel in the midsummer heat, in this foetid place, where more than a score of men, women, and children of all ages, slept and swarmed through every season, and where the floors of beaten earth were paven with filth three millimetres thick. The people were absent, but their ordure, their urine, their lice, their saliva were left there after them, and the stench of all was concentrated on this bed where the old man wrestled with death.

Don Silverio stayed on in the sultry and pestilent steam which rose up from the floor. Gnats and flies of all kinds buzzed in the heavy air, or settled in black knots on the walls and the rafters. With a bunch of dried maize-leaves he drove them off the old man's face and hands and limbs, and ever and again at intervals gave the poor creature a draught of water with a few drops in it from a phial of cordial which he had brought with him. The hours passed, each seeming longer than a day; at last the convulsive twitching of the jaws ceased; the jaw had fallen, the dark cavern of the toothless mouth yawned in a set grimace, the vitreous eyes were turned up into the head: the old man was dead. But Don Silverio did not leave him; two sows and a hog were in a stye which was open to the house; he knew that they would come and gnaw the corpse if it were left to them; they were almost starving, and grunted angrily.

He spent so many vigils similar to this that the self-sacrifice entailed in them never struck either him or those he served.

When the great heat had passed he set the door wide open; the sun was setting; a flood of light inundated the plain from the near mountains on the west, where the Leonessa towered, to those shadowy green clouds which far away in the east were the marshes before the sea. Through the ruddy glory of the evening the family returned, dark figures against the gold; brown women, half-nude men, footsore children, their steps dragging reluctantly homeward.

At the sight of the priest on the threshold they stopped and made obeisance humbly in reverent salutation.

"Is he dead, most reverend?" said the eldest of the brood, a man of sixty, touching the ground with his forehead.

"Your father is dead," said Don Silverio.

The people were still; relieved to hear that all was over, yet vaguely terrified, rather by his gaze than by his words. A woman wept aloud out of fear.

"We could net let the good grain spoil," said the eldest man, with some shame in his voice.

"Pray that your sons may deal otherwise with you when your turn shall come," said Don Silverio; and then he went through them, unmoved by their prayers and cries, and passed across the rough grass-land out of sight.

The oldest man, he who was now head of the house, remained prostrate on the threshold and beat the dust with his hands and heels; he was afraid to enter, afraid of that motionless, lifeless bag of bones of which the last cry had been a curse at him.

Don Silverio went on his way over the moors homeward, for he had no means except his own limbs whereby to go his scattered parishioners. When he reached the village and climbed its steep stones night had long fallen and he was sorely tired. He entered by a door which was never locked, and found an oil wick burning on his table, which was set out with the brown crockery used for his frugal supper of cheese and lettuce and bread. His old servant was abed. His little dog alone was on the watch to welcome him. It was a poor, plain place, with whitewashed walls and a few necessary articles of use; but it was clean and sweet, its brick floors were sanded, and the night air blew in from its open casement with the freshness from the river in it. Its quiet was seldom disturbed except by the tolling of the bell for the church services; and it was welcome to him after the toil and heat and stench of the past day.

"My lot might have been worse," he thought, as he broke his loaf; he was disinclined to eat; the filthy odours of the cabin pursued him.

He was used to have had a little weekly journal sent to him by the post; which came at rare intervals on an ass's back to Ruscino, the ass and his rider, with a meal sack half filled by the meagre correspondence of the district, making the rounds of that part of the province with an irregularity which seemed as natural to the sufferers by it as to the postman himself. "He cannot be everywhere at once," they said of him with indulgence.

When he reached his home that evening the little news-sheet was lying on his table beside the brown crockery, the cheese, lettuces, and bread. He scarcely touched the food; he was saddened and sickened by the day he had passed, although there had been nothing new in it, nothing of which he had not been witness a hundred times in the cabins of his parishioners. The little paper caught his eye, he took it and opened it. It was but a meagre thing, tardy of news, costing only two centimes, but it was the only publication which brought him any intelligence of that outer world from which he was as much separated as though he had been on a deserted isle in mid-ocean.

By the pale light of the single wick he turned over its thin sheet to distract his thoughts; there was war news in east and west, Church news in his own diocese and elsewhere; news all ten days old and more; political news also, scanty and timidly related. The name of the stream running underneath the walls of Ruscino caught his regard; a few lines were headed with it, and these lines said curtly:

"_The project to divert the course of the Edera river will be brought before the Chamber shortly; the Minister of Agriculture is considered to favour the project_."

He held the sheet nearer to the light and read the paragraph again, and yet again. The words were clear and indisputable in their meaning; they could not be misconstrued. There was but one river Edera in the whole province, in the whole country; there could be no doubt as to what river was meant; yet it seemed to him utterly impossible that any such project could be conceived by any creature. Divert the course of the Edera? He felt stupefied. He read the words over and over again; then he read them aloud in the stillness of the night, and his voice sounded strong in his own ears.

"It must be a misprint; it must be a mistake for the Era of Volterra, or the Esino, north of Ancona," he said to himself, and he went to his book closet and brought out an old folio geography which he had once bought for a few pence on a Roman bookstall, spread it open before him, and read one by one the names of all the streams of the peninsula, from the Dora Baltea to the Giarretta. There was no other Edera river. Unless it were indeed a misprint altogether, the stream which flowed under his church walls was the one which was named in the news-sheet.

"But it is impossible, it is impossible!" he said so loudly, that his little dog awoke and climbed on his knee uneasily and in alarm. "What could the people do? What could the village do, or the land or the fisher folk? Are we to have drought added to hunger? Can they respect nothing? The river belongs to the valley: to seize it, to appraise it, to appropriate it, to make it away with it, would be as monstrous as to steal his mother's milk from a yearling babe!"

He shut the folio and pushed it away from him across the table. "If this is true," he said to himself, "if, anyhow, this monstrous thing be true, it will kill Adone!"

In the morning he awoke from a short perturbed sleep with that heavy sense of a vaguely remembered calamity which stirs in the awakening brain like a worm in the unclosing flower.

The morning-office over, he sought out the little news-sheet, to make sure that he had read aright; his servant had folded it up and laid it aside on a shelf, he unfolded it with a hand which trembled; the same lines stared at him in the warm light of sunrise as in the faint glimmer of the floating wick. The very curtness and coldness of the announcement testified to its exactitude. He did not any longer doubt its truth; but there were no details, no explanations: he pondered on the possibilities of obtaining them; it was useless to seek them in the village or the countryside, the people were as ignorant as sheep.

Adone alone had intelligence, but he shrank from taking these tidings to the youth, as he would have shrunk from doing him a physical hurt. The news might be false or premature; many projects were discussed, many schemes sketched out, many speculations set on foot which came to nothing in the end: were this thing true, Adone would learn it all too soon and read it on the wounded face of nature. Not at least until he could himself be certain of its truth would he speak of it to the young man whose fathers had been lords of the river.

His duties over for the forenoon, he went up the three hundred stairs of his bell-tower, to the wooden platform, between the machicolations. It was a dizzy height, and both stairs and roof were in ruins, but he went cautiously, and was familiar with the danger. The owls which bred there were so used to him that they did not stir in their siesta as he passed them. He stood aloft in the glare of noonday, and looked down on the winding stream as it passed under the ruined walls of Ruscino, and growing, as it flowed, clearer and clearer, and wilder and wilder, as it rushed over stones and boulders, foaming and shouting, rushed through the heather on its way towards the Marches. Under Ruscino it had its brown mountain colour still, but as it ran it grew green as emeralds, blue as sapphires, silver and white and gray like a dove's wings; it was unsullied and translucent; the white clouds were reflected on it. It went through a country lonely, almost deserted, only at great distances from one another was there a group of homesteads, a cluster of stacks, a conical cabin in some places where the woods gave place to pasture; here and there were the ruins of a temple, of a fortress, of some great marble or granite tomb; but there was no living creature in sight except a troop of buffaloes splashing in a pool.

Don Silverio looked down on its course until his dazzled eyes lost it from sight in the glory of light through which it sped, and his heart sank, and he would fain have been a woman to have wept aloud. For he saw that its beauty and its solitude were such as would likely enough tempt the spoilers. He saw that it lay fair and defenceless as a maiden on her bed.

He dwelt out of the world now, but he had once dwelt in it; and the world does not greatly change, it only grows more rapacious. He knew that in this age there is only one law, to gain; only one duty, to prosper: that nature is of no account, nor beauty either, nor repose, nor ancient rights, nor any of the simple claims of normal justice. He knew that if in the course of the river there would be gold for capitalists, for engineers, for attorneys, for deputies, for ministers, that then the waters of the Edera were in all probability doomed.

He descended the rotten stairs slowly, with a weight as of lead at his heart. He did not any longer doubt the truth of what he had read. Who, or what, shall withstand the curse of its time?

"They have forgotten us so long," he thought, with bitterness in his soul. "We have been left to bury our dead as we would, and to see the children starve as they might; they remember us now, because we possess something which they can snatch from us!"

He did not doubt any more. He could only wait: wait and see in what form and in what time the evil would come to them. Meantime, he said to himself, he would not speak of it to Adone, and he burned the news-sheet. Administrations alter frequently and unexpectedly, and the money-changers, who are fostered by them, sometimes fall with them, and their projects remain in the embryo of a mere prospectus. There was that chance.

He knew that, in the age he lived in, all things were estimated only by their value to commerce or to speculation; that there was neither space nor patience amongst men for what was, in their reckoning, useless; that the conqueror was now but a trader in disguise; that civilisation was but the shibboleth of traffic; that because trade follows the flag, therefore to carry the flag afar, thousands of young soldiers of every nationality are slaughtered annually in poisonous climes and obscure warfare, because such is the _suprema lex and will of the trader. If the waters of Edera would serve to grind any grit for the mills of modern trade they would be taken into bondage with many other gifts of nature as fair and as free as they were. All creation groaned and travailed in pain that the great cancer should spread.

"It is not only ours," he remembered with a pang; on its way to and from the Valdedera the river passed partially through two other communes, and water belongs to the district in which it runs. True, the country of each of these was like that of this valley, depopulated and wild; but, however great a solitude any land may be, it is still locally and administratively dependent on the chief town of its commune. Ruscino and its valley were dependent on San Beda; these two other communes were respectively under a little town of the Abruzzo and under a seaport of the Adriatic.

The interest of the valley of the Edera in its eponymous stream was a large share; but it was not more than a share, in this gift of nature. If it came to any question of conflicting interests, Ruscino and the valley might very likely be powerless, and could only, in any event, be represented by and through San Beda; a strongly ecclesiastical and papal little place, and, therefore, without influence with the ruling powers, and consequently viewed with an evil eye by the Prefecture.

He pondered anxiously on the matter for some days, then, arduous as the journey was, he resolved to go to San Beda and inquire.

The small mountain city was many miles away upon a promontory of marble rocks, and its many spires and towers were visible only in afternoon light from the valley of the Edera. It was as old as Ruscino, a dull, dark, very ancient place with monasteries and convents like huge fortresses and old palaces still fortified and grim as death amongst them. A Cistercian monastery, which had been chiefly built by the second Giulio, crowned a prominent cliff, which dominated the town, and commanded a view of the whole of the valley of the Edera, and, on the western horizon, of the Leonessa and her tributary mountains and hills.

He had not been there for five years; he went on foot, for there was no other means of transit, and if there had been he would not have wasted money on it; the way was long and irksome; for the latter half, entirely up a steep mountain road. He started in the early morning as soon as Mass had been celebrated, and it was four in the afternoon before he had passed the gates of the town, and paid his respects to the Bishop. He rested in the Certosa, of which the superior was known to him; the monks, like the Bishop, had heard nothing. So far as he could learn when he went into the streets no one in the place had heard anything of the project to alter the course of the river. He made the return journey by night, so as to reach his church by daybreak, and was there in his place by the high altar when the bell tolled at six o'clock, and the three or four old people, who never missed an office, were kneeling on the stones.

He had walked over forty miles, and had eaten nothing except some bread and a piece of dried fish. But he always welcomed physical fatigue; it served to send to sleep the restless intellect, the gnawing regrets, the bitter sense of wasted powers and of useless knowledge, which were his daily company.

He had begged his friends, the friars, to obtain an interview with the Syndic of Sand Beda, and interrogate him on the subject. Until he should learn something positive he could not bring himself to speak of the matter to Adone: but the fact of his unusual absence had too much astonished his little community for the journey not to have been the talk of Ruscino. Surprised and disturbed like others, Adone was waiting for him in the sacristy after the first mass.

"You have been away a whole day and night and never told me, reverendissimo!" he cried in reproach and amazement.

"I have yet to learn that you are my keeper," said Don Silverio with a cold and caustic intonation.

Adone coloured to the roots of his curling hair.

"That is unkind, sir!" he said humbly; "I only meant that -- that --"

"I know, I know!" said the priest impatiently, but with contrition. "You meant only friendship and good-will; but there are times when the best intentions irk one. I went to see the Prior of the Certosa, and old friend; I had business in San Beda."

Adone was silent, afraid that he had shown an unseemly curiosity; he saw that Don Silverio was irritated and not at ease, and he hesitated what words to choose.

His friend relented, and blamed himself for being hurried by disquietude into harshness.

"Come and have a cup of coffee with me, my son," he said in his old, kind tones. "I am going home to break my fast."

But Adone was hurt and humiliated, and made excuse of field work, which pressed by reason of the weather, and so he did not name to his friend and councillor the visit of the three men to the river.

Don Silverio went home and boiled his coffee; he always did this himself; it was the only luxury he ever allowed himself, and he did not indulge even in this very often. But for once the draught had neither fragrance nor balm for him. He was overtired, weary in mind as in body, and greatly dejected; even though nothing was known at San Beda he felt convinced that what he had read was the truth.

He knew but little of affairs of speculation, but he knew that it was only in reason to suppose that such projects would be kept concealed, as long as might be expedient, from those who would be known to be hostile to them, in order to minimise the force of opposition.

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On the morning of the fourth day which followed on the priest's visit to San Beda, about ten in the forenoon, Adone, with his two oxen, Orlando and Rinaldo, were near the river on that part of his land which was still natural moorland, and on which heather, and ling, and broom, and wild roses, and bracken grew together. He had come to cut a waggon load of furze, and had been at work there since eight o'clock, when he had come out of the great porch of the church after attending mass, for it was the twentieth of June, the
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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
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